Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Wandering Down the "Don't Touch" Line

How do you help visitors know what they can and cannot do in your museum? Most museums have this figured out: they have signs, they have guards, they have cases over the objects. But what happens if you take away the "Don't Touch" signs and the uniforms? What if you want to create a more generous atmosphere that presumes the goodwill and propriety of visitors? What if you WANT them to touch certain things?

I used to think these were easy questions to answer. I grew up professionally in the science and children's museum field, where touching is guaranteed and floor staff spend more time helping visitors learn and ensuring their personal safety than they do protecting the objects. I believe in the same idealistic vision that Frank Oppenheimer brought to the Exploratorium: if you respect visitors' intelligence and good sense, they will respect your objects. And this works pretty well in science museums, where designers talk about "hardening" exhibits to withstand the more aggressive touchers among us.

Art, however, does not come to museums pre-hardened. At the museum of art and history where I work, we are grappling with the question of how to help people enjoy themselves while keeping the art and artifacts safe.

We've taken down the don't touch signs and created a friendly, welcoming atmosphere. We've increased attendance among people who are new to museum experiences. The level of touching, especially of art, has increased. While it's great that people feel comfortable here, it's not great that they are (presumably unwittingly) endangering the art. This challenge is exacerbated by several factors including:

  • Inconsistent level of touching allowed. We are increasing the number of interactive elements in the galleries, and we haven't found a clear way to say to people, "touch this but don't touch that." In the history gallery, we have some blended props and artifacts, and it's rarely clear what is and is not ok to touch. I sometimes talk to parents who are stressed out trying to figure out what their kids can and can't do.
  • Many objects not in vitrines. We love showing objects outside the confines of a case. But it makes it less clear that they are not for touching. Putting objects on pedestals helps, but not always. 
  • Focus on family audiences. As we make the museum more family-friendly in a number of ways (activities, casual spaces, interactive bits), we have a lot more kids in the galleries. They love to run up and grab things. Their parents are not always able or willing to stop them. Many don't have "museum experience" and don't know what we expect.
  • Low level of staffing and security. We intentionally do not have much security at the museum. We don't have signs that say Don't Touch. We don't have guards. We do have friendly gallery hosts, but not every hour of the day. 
  • Engagement with local artists. One of the things we love about exhibiting local artists is that they are often here to talk with visitors about their work. It's not unusual to see an artist showing a visitor how she constructed something or created an effect. It's also not unusual to see an artist touching their own work as they show it to visitors. Especially during our woodworking show, we had a flurry of fabulous woodworkers opening their cabinets and drawers. This was amazing. It also made visitors feel like they could do it too. 
This is only going to become a bigger issue for us as we invite in new audiences and incorporate more participatory experiences throughout the museum. I am unwilling to adopt standard strategies of security guards and cases everywhere--both of which I believe introduce an inhospitable environment to engaging with artworks and with other people. I want to provide a higher standard of care for the objects while also pushing forward a friendly, generous standard of care for visitors. 

How will we deal with this? Here are a few solutions I've seen and options we could consider:
  • The Denver Art Museum does a terrific job indicating where there are family activities in galleries with a consistent visual look and feel that is repeated throughout the museum. We've talked about doing a "family guide" to our museum that helps people find these "do touch" spaces. However, in Denver, this approach is supported by the fact that there are guards in other spaces. The Oakland Museum, which tried a similar approach with their "touch me" stickers throughout the galleries (as shown above in the photo), has reported an overall increase in touching... all over the place.
  • Labels that explain the reasons behind the "don't touch" rule. We had a "please don't lick the art" sign for woodworking that talked about the oils impacting the wood. I've enjoyed seeing labels that explain these things, but I wonder if it's a museum-wonk approach that doesn't work for general audiences.
  • The Milwaukee Art Museum has a video explaining do's and don'ts of the museum for children. This video rubs me the wrong way because it reinforces the basic "nos" of museums in a cutesy way. Keep your arms behind your back. Avoid the guards who wag their fingers at you (until the part at the end where it suggests that guards are people too). In some ways, I feel like this is just a "don't touch" rule dressed up in a Reading Rainbow costume. But I appreciate the concept of a family-friendly introduction to the museum and I understand that this is not geared to me as a viewer.
  • At the MAH, we've tried proactively "helping" visitors touch in certain exhibitions. For example, in the woodworking show referenced above, we ended up giving our gallery hosts white gloves so they could open drawers and doors for visitors. It's not the same as getting to stroke the wood (which everyone wanted to do), but it addresses some of their desires.
  • Lots more trained staff or volunteers--not guards, but people who can welcome visitors to the museum and help them be comfortable and clear about the experience available. 
  • More hardening (without casework). Maybe it's not possible to be as friendly as we want to be without a certain number of kids zooming up to grab a sculpture or people mistakenly thinking they can stroke a cabinet. Maybe there are design solutions that introduce barriers in less stark ways than casework. I'm kind of dubious of this, but it's possible.
What do you think? If you want to create a friendly, welcoming environment AND protect objects, what do you do? What's the "yes and" solution to this? I'd particularly love to hear from people who are non-museum professionals on this one.
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