View of Rooms C208 and C220e in the European and American Galleries at the National Gallery of Canada, June 2020. Photo: NGC

Why We Like to Touch Art, and Why We Shouldn’t

In hindsight, it was an accident waiting to happen. Hypercaine, an installation conceived by artists Simon Birch, Gloria Yu, Gabriel Chan and Jacob Blitzer for the 14th Factory, a pop-up exhibition in Los Angeles in 2017, consisted of a grid of tall, thin pedestals that filled a room. A single, unique crown had been placed on each of the pedestals. In an attempt to take a photo of herself with the work behind her, a woman lost her balance while crouching in front of one of the rows. The pedestal tipped backwards, causing a domino effect that tumbled the entire row, while everyone could only stand by and watch.

The Internet is rife with examples of works of art being damaged by non-intentional, and also intentional, contact. Often the harm done is accidental – caused by people aiming for the perfect photograph for social media, people posing for friends, boisterous children or the over-curious. On rare occasions it is deliberate: a person is trying to make a statement by purposely destroying art. Thankfully, in the case of the National Gallery of Canada, the damages sustained from "visitor interactions" are much less catastrophic than in the events that go viral on the Internet.

Jean Noël, Egg (Big, orange and red), 1968. Moulded coloured plexiglass and plywood, 175.3 x 110.5 x 58.4 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

Most people know that art is meant to be seen and not touched; however, often people are simply interested in the artistic process and want to explore further. Modern and contemporary art, in particular, can arouse a curiosity about what works are made of, making them especially vulnerable. The most compelling materials can include plastic, whose original lifespan was meant to be temporary. Artworks created using plastic can appear to be strong, but have actually degraded and are more brittle and easily damaged than they seem. Because contemporary sculptures are often intriguing, colourful and fun, they also may look interactive, especially to visitors who have experience of exploration-themed displays in science centres. Some contemporary sculptures or installations actually use electricity or include hazardous components that should not be handled without protection, thereby posing a risk to those who venture beyond an erected barrier.

The main reason why art shouldn’t be touched is the inherent fragility of the works, the obvious breakage that could occur if an object was sat or climbed on, or handled in a manner it was not meant for. Less obvious, but just as significant, are the invisible traces left behind by the brushing of fingers along the arm of a marble sculpture or over the brushstrokes of a painting. The tips of our fingers carry sweat, oils and acids, all of which can transfer to an artwork. Metal, painted surfaces, works on paper, textiles and photographs can all be damaged or stained by unclean hands. Metals in particular are affected by acids and salts, and handling metal with bare hands can mar the surface with permanent handprints and fingerprints. Coatings, waxes or chemical patinas are often applied to works of art to create a desired appearance, as well as to provide either environmental or physical protection, but repeated touching wears down this protective covering. Grime from hands can build up in the recesses of a porous surface, leaving ingrained dirt and grease. 

Tom Thomson, Red Leaves, c.1914. Oil on wood, 21.2 x 26.7 cm. Bequest of Dr. J.M. MacCallum, Toronto, 1944. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

Some contact is even more worrisome: paint layers on canvas can be cracked or dislodged with very little pressure to the front of a painting. Most materials can be harmed by being rubbed or scratched inadvertently by metal on clothing, as well as rings, watches and even fingernails. Boots and shoes carry grit, salt and dirt, which can abrade and corrode works of art.

While necessary to stabilize and restore an artwork to the appearance intended by the artist, conservation treatments invariably cause change, whether by repairing or retouching areas, or by replacing parts lost or damaged beyond repair. To avoid this, our most vulnerable works are protected in a variety of ways. Security guards are a regular sight in most museums, however they simply cannot be everywhere at all times (and the expense can be prohibitive for small galleries). Installations and art hung on walls often have stanchions (low fence-like barriers) or a line taped on the floor in front; these are not meant as physical barriers but rather to provide a guideline of the safe distance at which to view that particular work of art. Smaller objects are placed in cases, and sensitive paintings or works on paper are displayed behind a sheet of clear acrylic. When it could be considered ambiguous to the visitor, installing a work on a plinth or raised platform provides clarification that the object is, in fact, art.  

Antonio Canova, Dancer

Antonio Canova, Dancer, 1818–22. Marble, 172.7 cm high. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

Increasingly, museums have been using gentle reminders that art is fragile and is meant only to be viewed. This includes "Please Do Not Touch" signage or text written on the floor in vinyl adhesive. While these measures are somewhat successful, some visitors who don’t intend to touch might be insulted by what they perceive as a reprimand. The signage can also be problematic in other ways: some artworks have signage while others don’t, which can be misinterpreted as the "unprotected" art being intended for interaction. This can cause confusing inconsistencies, especially for first-time visitors. In addition, there can be a language barrier.

Museums and art galleries are meant to be inclusive spaces for people of all ages to come enjoy, be inspired by and engage with art. To maintain a welcoming environment, while still protecting the artworks, we are constantly reviewing the balance between access and preservation. We need the help of our visitors to keep Canada's national collection accessible and looking the way the artists intended.


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