Touch This Don't Touch That: Art Museums and Institutions Grapple with Rules of Engagement

By Hahn, Valerie Schremp | St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO), March 5, 2017 | Go to article overview

Touch This Don't Touch That: Art Museums and Institutions Grapple with Rules of Engagement


Hahn, Valerie Schremp, St Louis Post-Dispatch (MO)


Come on in, enjoy the artwork er, wait.

Don't get too close. Yes, you can touch that sculpture over there; that's the artist's intent. Please stay behind this barrier. Can we help you understand more about this work? Are you confused?

As art museums and institutions work to make their exhibits accessible for the masses, they also grapple with laying out the ground rules. Is it ever OK to touch? What protections do they need to put into place? How can they deliver this message without sounding stuffy and uninviting?

Occasionally, art interaction goes bad, and that sometimes makes headlines: Just last week, a visitor at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington, D.C., took a misstep and accidentally damaged a glowing pumpkin sculpture by Japanese artist Yayoi Kusama.

Laumeier Sculpture Park celebrates its 40th anniversary this year and has rolled out a social media campaign to educate visitors about when it's OK to touch or climb on a sculpture. The sculptures are outside in the elements, so wear and tear over time are expected.

Conservators check on the sculptures, and visitors let them know of anything out of the ordinary, says Lauren Kistner, a park spokeswoman. "We try to strike the right balance. We don't want to scare people. We try to educate. Which is why we have our campaign. It's very positive, it talks about what they can do, rather than what they can't."

For example: Yes, you can walk through Jackie Ferrara's "Laumeier Project" (1981), a wooden pyramid-shaped structure. Walking through "is the best way to see the rhythmic light patterns through its slit openings," says a recent Facebook post.

Similar posts encourage visitors to sit on (but not climb) Niki de Saint Phalle's "Ricardo Cat," or to climb the stairs on "Cromlech Glen," an earthwork by Beverly Pepper.

"Treetent" by Dr Wapenaar doesn't get a recent mention: The canvas tent perched in a tree and accessible by ladder had to be taken down because of graffiti. It's usually taken inside for winter anyway, Kistner says. But now the staff has been discussing options. One is to hang it again but higher, making it noninteractive. "Unfortunately, that's the stuff you have to deal with," she says.

Laumeier curator Dana Turkovic says she's been pulling renderings of sculptures from the archives for an April exhibition about the park's history. Many drawings are of sculptures no longer there.

"There's so many situations over 40 years why something was taken off view," she says. "It's not necessarily vandalism. Things might break down, or the intention was to be ephemeral. I think that helps people understand just how unique every single one of the pieces are here."

Visitors to the St. Louis Art Museum come there to have an aesthetic experience, and that's what the museum wants as well, says Hugh Shockey Jr., head of conservation. But part of the visitor experience is manipulated in ways that required a lot of planning.

Subtle wire barriers near the floor keep you from getting too close to a painting by Gerhard Richter. And a Roman Corinthian capital sits on a pedestal that's weighted down by a few hundred pounds of lead and then attached to the wall but you may not notice it because it's painted the same terra cotta color as the wall. …

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