Flash Points

Careful Not to Touch

Raqs Media Collective. "Please do not touch the work of art," (2006). Courtesy the artists.

Raqs Media Collective. “Please do not touch the work of art,” (2006). Courtesy the artists.

I feel the impulse from time to time. A momentary desire to run a finger across the surface of a painting. It’s easily suppressed, however, and passes without another thought. Certain artworks reliably trigger the urge every time, while most do not. If you could touch one artwork, in any museum, which would it be? And what would you be seeking?

Children explore the world through touching, ceaselessly compiling a tactile catalogue of the visible world. In time, a child amasses a rich library of sensory pairings, the retinal impression reinforced with a comprehension of the physical. Gradually, after years of sensory stockpiling, the compulsion to handle everything subsides.

But in fact the need to touch things never truly goes away—it is easily reawakened in the presence of new and strange things. New designer products routinely seduce us with novel finishes, engineered to inflame our appetite for fresh tactile sensations. The impulse can also awaken at the promise of a known reward: we are moved to stroke velvet not to gain new knowledge, but because we know it will gratify.

Museums discourage all manner of touching. Although there are children’s museums, petting zoos and others that offer tactile experiences, those constitute a small minority. The prohibition against touching is so deeply entrenched in museum culture that it is seldom even stated: signs advise us when not to photograph, but only rarely tell us not to touch. Codes of behavior in museums are communicated to us subliminally, telepathically via architecture. But even while the rules aren’t articulated, most patrons readily abide by them.

And yet, museums are precisely the sorts of places where we might hope to encounter something strange and new, igniting our desire for sensory experiences. As touch-averse environments, museums restrict our experience mainly to the visual-cerebral. It’s fairly typical to see adults drift through museum galleries with their hands clasped behind their backs. I do this, too—possibly to suppress my own anarchic urges, or to communicate my subservience to the regime: I understand the rules; I pose no threat.

Even while most visitors follow protocol much of the time, exceptions occur, and whether out of curiosity, rebellion or obliviousness, visitors sometimes fail to keep their hands off the art. Any museum guard, conservator or docent can tell you these incidents are not infrequent. I began asking friends and colleagues which artwork, if they could choose one, would they touch? In my informal survey no one hesitated; everyone had an answer either instantly or after a few moments of reflection—all were acquainted with the urge.

I also asked what they would hope to gain, or to experience, from touching. I imagined that to answer this, one must articulate a deeper, subtler aspect of relating to the art. But most often, I found that even those who could readily name the object of their choice couldn’t explain the underlying reason. I anticipated stories, and instead found that people often had no words to describe the impulse.

One friend named Brancusi’s Mademoiselle Pogany, after giving it some thought. As he described the sculpture, his whole body became engaged; he moved his arm in a slow arc, torquing and lilting to illustrate the spiraling movement of the piece, embodying its contours while he spoke. Clearly his experience of the work is a physical, bodily one. To touch its marble surface, it would seem, could only serve to complement its somatic spell.

Constantin Brancusi, "Portrait of Mlle Pogany," 1912, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Constantin Brancusi, “Portrait of Mlle Pogany,” 1912, Philadelphia Museum of Art.

Which works in a museum get touched the most? I asked a conservator at SFMOMA, who outlined a few broad trends: “People generally touch things that are between waist and shoulder height,” she offered; “if they have to bend down, they won’t do it.” She described prevailing tendencies—industrial materials are touched more than traditional art materials; a Gehry chair in a design exhibition gets more direct contact than a Matisse bronze, for example. She added, “Tactile or cool objects are touched more than artwork that is challenging. Thomas Schutte‘s polished aluminum figures, for instance, are touched more than Damien Hirst’s medicine cabinet.”

The conservator’s characterizations hint at something banal: that objects with fetishy finishes trick the visitor into thinking they’re not in a museum but in a high-end retail store. After all, these are the same materials we are accustomed to pawing in showrooms where handling is allowed or even encouraged. It’s possible to think that contact isn’t always born from unspeakable desires or childlike wonder, but rather in a semi-somnambulistic trance.

Alexander Calder, "Goldfish Bowl," 1929, wire, private collection.

Alexander Calder. “Goldfish Bowl,” 1929.Wire. Private collection.

Moving parts, particularly controls such as levers and buttons, expressly beg to be touched. Who, upon seeing Calder’s Goldfish Bowl (1929) hasn’t craved to turn its delicate wire crank? An assemblage by Jasper Johns called Souvenir hangs at SFMOMA, consisting of three objects attached to a canvas: an inert flashlight, positioned beneath an adjustable bicycle mirror, whose surface angles toward a ceramic plate bearing an image of the artist’s face. A wall label offers a tour through the artist’s use of these symbols and concludes: “If turned on, the light from the flashlight would presumably reflect in the mirror, illuminating the artist’s image. Instead, these nonfunctional objects, off-limits to the viewer, only frustrate and confound.”

Jasper Johns, "Souvenir," 1964; encaustic on canvas with objects; 28 3/4 x 21 in. (73 x 53.3 cm); Collection of the artist, extended loan to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; © Jasper Johns / Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

Jasper Johns. “Souvenir,” 1964. Encaustic on canvas with objects. 28 3/4 x 21 in. (73 x 53.3 cm). Collection of the artist, extended loan to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art; © Jasper Johns/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

This unusually candid curatorial commentary hints at a disconnection some visitors feel when in front of this work. I spoke with an associate curator of education, who has frequently witnessed the frustration visitors have with Souvenir. They want to know: does the flashlight work? Would the mirror really reflect the beam of light onto the plate? Was the work ever displayed with the light on? And so forth. If only they could try the switch on the flashlight, they might find themselves a step closer to “getting” the work. Instead the work implicitly promises interaction while the museum simultaneously withholds it.

In my informal survey of colleagues and friends (most of whom work in museums), I noticed a very distinct theme emerge: that of feeling a deep connection, not only with the object, but with the person who made it. One colleague described wanting to place her hands on a Giacometti bronze to follow the impressions left by the artist’s fingers. Another recalled holding a paleolithic hand axe at the British Museum, among the archaeological objects sometimes made available for handling. In a vitrine it would have remained a nondescript lump of rock, he explained. But with the tool in his hand, he found a proper grip, and with it came a profound feeling of empathy. Holding it in the manner its owner would have held it sparked a sense of connection to someone who lived hundreds of thousands of years ago.

But just as often, the people I asked couldn’t find words for what they believed they could gain from touching. The one person I spoke with who readily confessed to illicitly petting a work in a museum said only: “I found out what I needed to find out.”

Tim Svenonius is Producer of Interpretive Media at SFMOMA and maintains an art practice in San Francisco. His writings can be found at www.sacredbeast.net.


  1. Mark Gelbart says:

    I would never ever touch an artwork. They’re sacred to me – I even get nervous when I see other observers getting a bit too close. But in the world of hypotheticals… there are so many works that come to mind that might be interesting choices like Kusama’s finger-like works.

    The urge has come over me subconsciously when looking at Robert Rauchenberg’s assemblages. I think this is because of the familiar everyday objects incorporated into the work. Objects that actually hang or are placed on the canvas nearly beg to be touched. They’re actually very similar to the Jasper Johns assemblage above.

  2. stauffer says:

    Hi, I remember this “touching thing” specially the Scope ART Show Miami 2012… OMG, all these touchy people, drunken but supertouchy, they destroyed unfortunately some of our artworks and no follow ups against them.
    I really really appreciate to make people look at artworks only. For the art works any kind of respect to the artwork as well the artist and the galerist should be an absolute MUST !!! Therefore you can create touchworkart of course seen in Tinguely Museum in Basel where you can move the Tinguely Art with electric components by yourself but not touch the artwork, this would be the right direction to the artwork. Normaly if you touch something you need to buy it, cause it is a kind of buying signal !!!

  3. Christine Wong Yap says:

    This is an interesting article and I appreciate the insight from museum professionals, whose work is dedicated to the tricky balance of preserving and presenting artworks. I do not envy invigilators.

    Something about the attitude that conscious art-touchers may espouse reminds me of Jonathan Haidt’s writing about bias (see “The Happiness Hypothesis,” 2006). Psychological researchers have found that subjects will readily identify other people’s biases but not their own. In other words, we all feel that we see things objectively, as they are, while everyone else is biased.

    Perhaps art-touchers enact this bias when they assume “It’s OK, because it’s just this one time” or “Since I’ll be careful, I won’t damage the art, so the rule doesn’t apply to me.”

    But as an artist and a preparator who spends very long days and nights making artworks and galleries look as perfect as possible, and further, expends additional time, labor and resources on things like framing and crates to preserve this highly artificial state of perfection, the rather arbitrary and casual way that art-touchers will so readily un-do this state, whether intentional or not, can feel polarizing. Sometimes, it is as if audiences anthropomorphize and accelerate the forces of entropy.

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