I was recently at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts (VMFA) in Richmond, Virginia with a friend, who is also the employee of a museum, and we were enjoying the Cast of Punt Reliefs from the Temple of Hatshepsut at Deir el Bahri (here’s a link, it’s wonderful!). It’s a replica relief of the original and the only thing separating Us from It was a railing…how we wanted to touch it! Museum employees, who know better, wanted to touch! The lure of the hieroglyphics and depictions of underwater creatures was too much!
One of the first rules at most museums is No Touching. But, why is that? The simplest answer is that the oils from our hands leave residue on the object and can create damage. You often see museum employees with the telltale gloves, protecting the objects from ourselves.
The image below shows what happens when metal is touched. This is from our dog collar collection – at some point, the metal was handled. This is not surprising, considering this was utilitarian object. It was meant to be used and it was. We can’t be upset by that. Now that it’s part of the museum’s collection, we need to preserve it the best we can and, since it’s metal, we wear gloves.
If you’ve visited the Vatican, you may have heard that rubbing St. Peter’s foot will bring good luck or help you get into Heaven. Not just any sculpture (please do not run around Vatican City touching all the feet of St Peter you find), but perhaps it is the most famous one, attributed to Arnolfo di Cambio (Italian, c. 1240-1300/1310).
Take a look at those feet!!
His right foot is almost completely gone and his left one looks like a hoof. Of course, this is over centuries of pilgrims and visitors coming into contact with his feet, so it is an extreme example. But it does give you an idea of what could eventually happen.
The rule of thumb has been to always wear gloves when handling objects, but interestingly, there are instances when gloves can actually cause more harm than good. Works on paper, like unframed prints, don’t require gloves because it’s possible that pre-existing tears can catch on the gloves and create further damage. As one professional writes, “Gloves make you clumsy.” Instead, we wash (and dry!) our hands thoroughly beforehand and ensure we don’t touch our faces, transferring any oils. This is harder than it sounds. It’s like when you’re supposed to be quiet, but then you can’t stop laughing. Once you start thinking about it, suddenly, your nose starts itching!
There are the white cotton gloves and the nitrile gloves. I prefer the nitrile because they fit better. I have found that the white gloves are either too big or too small, there’s no Baby Bear size, and having gloves that don’t fit right is a problem. You don’t want something to slip out of your hands because you don’t have a firm grip.
Seen as intimidating, some museums are trying to move away from this by having touching stations. During 2019’s NSLMology: The Science of Sporting Art, the chemistry section had a bronze mare and foal on display that asked visitors to touch.
The VMFA has a clever idea to educate visitors who are curious as to why we can’t touch, and that’s to show what happens when we do touch. In the lobby of the museum, near the ticket desk, there’s a touching station that presents an array of mediums found within the museum, like metal, fabric, and wood. Each sample has the top half covered by plexiglass and the bottom half exposed, encouraging people to touch. It shows how the materials are affected by continual handling: the area covered by plexi maintains its original condition whilst the exposed half reveals the damage incurred from the oils on our hands.
As for us, we put our hands in our pockets like naughty children and laughed at ourselves that even museum employees are susceptible to the siren’s call to Touch Objects.
Art History News, The white glove fallacy, published September 29, 2012
Image of St. Peter: Visit Vatican City
Image of St. Peter’s foot: Reach the World
Lauren Kraut is the Collections Manager at the National Sporting Library & Museum. Her primary focus is to maintain and preserve the works of art in the collection and on loan. Email her at lkraut@NationalSporting.org