Please Don’t Touch the Art … but Please Ask Why!

A Brief Explanation of Why You Shouldn’t Touch the Art

In The Guard, the three main characters make the decision to touch a famous piece of art hanging in a museum, which launches the audience on a journey through history. The play is a beautiful exploration of our connection with art and its meaning and power, but it will make museum professionals everywhere cringe. But what’s really so bad about touching the art?

First, people who don’t handle works of art or historic artifacts with care can easily break or damage them. Oil paintings, like the Rembrandt featured in The Guard, have very brittle surfaces. Just a tiny amount of pressure from your finger on the canvas could be enough to chip off the paint and damage the painting.

The less straightforward reason for not touching the art lies in your body’s biochemistry. Your hands produce a naturally acidic oil that does a terrific job of keeping your skin flexible and healthy but wreaks havoc on other materials. If you reached out and touched a Rembrandt, the oils and the perspiration on your finger would leave grimy, acidic residues behind. Those oils can’t be wiped off without doing more damage to the artifact so they stay there indefinitely, corroding the delicate materials and creating a grimy build-up on the surface of the piece.

All museum artifacts should be handled with care, but the specific procedures and protocols to follow will change depending on what the object is made of.

Metals—like the silver inlay in Booth’s deringer pistol, for example—are particularly susceptible to the oils on your skin and will immediately start to tarnish if you touch them with bare hands. To contain these oils, museum professionals often wear gloves when touching sensitive artifacts.

Textiles—like Lincoln’s Brooks Brothers great coat—are usually less susceptible to damage from the oils on your hands but significantly more difficult to handle with an extra layer between your fingers and the object. Depending on the type of handling needed, therefore, the conservator or museum staff may choose to forego the gloves and use clean, dry hands to move or manipulate the artifact.

However, there is another fundamental reason visitors should not touch the art. Art should be treated with respect. When museum professionals are trained on proper art handling, the heart of what they learn is reverence for the history and power of the objects that will be in their care.

As caretakers and stewards of art and objects, museums have a unique responsibility to balance their care and conservation with public access to the collection. If the artifact is handled or even displayed too frequently, it will deteriorate quickly, and future generations will never have the opportunity to see it. However, if it is kept carefully locked away from light, environmental pollutants and our toxic fingers, current generations will never have the chance to learn from it.

Conservators, curators and others working in the museum field are specially trained not only on how to touch the art but on how to navigate the balance between public access and preservation of the collection.

Most museum people will tell you that they were kids who grew up visiting museums and dreaming of finding a way to get closer to the objects behind the glass. If you want to touch the art, please stay safely behind the velvet rope and in the good graces of the museum guard. Perhaps consider a career in museums instead.

Heather Hoagland is the Exhibitions and Collections Manager for Ford’s Theatre Society where she supports the special exhibitions program in the Center for Education and Leadership.  She holds an M.A. in Museum Studies from The George Washington University. Connect with her on Twitter @hlhoagland.