Reality Check: For Your Eyes Only

Amanda Shepard, Vice President and COO

The news media loves to circulate stories of brazen museum visitors who get too close to the objects in their midst, causing some degree of harm to priceless art and antiquities. The more valuable the art, the more headlines, and the more dramatic the damage, the more shame we in the audience can heap on the hapless fools.

Sensational news stories are one thing; real life “please do not touch!” incidents at FWMoA are another. Without knowing it, I began exploring this topic several weeks ago with my in-depth tale of the Helmholtz disaster of 2013, in which a reckless driver “touched” FWMoA’s most valuable work of art with his truck at a high speed. But what about the day-to-day behaviors of our most curious and touchy-feely visitors?

There are stories that are baked into FWMoA lore that always give us staff a chuckle, like the time a parent placed her infant inside one of Dale Chihuly’s Macchia sculptures to capture a photo in the style of Anne Geddes circa 1997. As horrifying as that is to those of us who spend our days taking care of valuable works of art, many of them are so sumptuously beautiful that we want to experience them with all of our senses. With their glistening, silken texture and wild and perfect color combinations, the macchias especially are begging to be loved by the eyes and the hands.

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The new Chihuly installation at FWMoA.

Because of their mesmerizing beauty, we couldn’t resist putting them on display once again, along with two new Chihuly acquisitions that contextualize his pioneering glass-blowing techniques and deepen our love for this master’s work. We intentionally declined to entomb the sculptures in spirit-killing Plexiglas vitrines (protective cases) in order to give our visitors the most intimate viewing experience possible. With this decision, we fully understand the risk we’re taking and apologize for tempting you with this hands-off beauty. And yet, we believe it is for the greater good of experiencing art with nothing between your eyes.

A conversation with the people who see it all will enlighten my musings. I spoke with Brad Renner, a member of our security and visitor services team, about his observations of the public and how he handles situations when someone’s crossed the breach. Within a week of their reinstallation, a father had dangled his young son over the macchias. “I found myself saying, ‘Please don’t hang your child out over the glass,’ said Brad, “He was embarrassed.”

Brad has also noted more women than men touch art at FWMoA. Textured paintings and smooth materials are the most irresistible, Brad observes, and I myself have noticed that when the Amish quilts are on display, older women can’t keep their hands off. The museum purist in me wants to bark, “Hands off!,” but the empathetic human in me understands their desire.

I have a creeping suspicion that for all the good that museums are designed to do, their very nature is out of step with human nature. Many parents I know (including yours truly) feel great anxiety over making a museum visit a family thing, because little ones under, say, age 6, are fundamentally at odds with the “do not touch” rule. Museums most commonly display precious objects for us only to look at, think about, and learn from, and we know that people, especially young ones, experience and learn through a variety of senses.

Of course, just because we grow up doesn’t mean we don’t still want to engage more of our senses when we encounter something that really excites us. A satisfying meal can be beautiful to behold, exciting to smell, interestingly textured, and delightful to taste. A good movie is well-written, aesthetically thoughtful, and professionally mixed for sound, among other qualities. Books are more fun to read when we feel the pages. Close friends embrace one another as they enjoy each other’s company. We are very much alive when our sensual bodies let our spirits thrive and help our minds understand the world.

Sure, there are installation and performance artists that engage us on levels beyond the visual. And many museums understand the value of audio tours, artist videos, and interactive learning tools. The supplemental efforts that museums make to enhance our experience of an object are commendable and quite possibly necessary for museums to compete in an ever more stimulating world.

What I see, though, on a regular basis, is our visitors guiltily exhilarated when they can sneak a touch in without being caught. Skateboarders love Darrel Petit’s Continuum for its slick, downhill surface and kids beg for photos on top of this “rock.” Our relaxed photography rules have spawned posts (with FWMoA tagged!) popping up on social media of visitors daring their comrades to touch the art and tempt the alarms. Does it frustrate and confound me? Yes. Do I get it? Absolutely.

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Darrell Petit, Continuum. Granite, 2015. Museum Purchase.

The tension between museum and human nature will likely persist as long as museums maintain “do not touch” rules (which I condone and uphold at FWMoA) and as long as humans yearn for intimate experiences with beauty. And yet, we need to recognize that the experiences that most excite museum-goers are those that incorporate multiple senses but protect the art. We won’t have the brilliant creations that artists give us if they’re worn to nothing by oily fingerprints, but we also won’t have any visitors if we don’t understand what they desire.

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