For many people the primary way for them to acquire information about objects and the world about them is through touch. For others, tactile experiences help to complete their mental image or understanding of an object.
18th century philosophers endorsed the aesthetic value of touch, considering the tactile experience of handling an artwork necessary to fully appreciate its beauty. In his 1749 publication, Lettre sur les aveugles à l’usage de ceux qui voient (Letter on the Blind, for the Usage of Those Who Can See), Denis Diderot reflected on the relationship between visual and tactile perception in experiencing forms and acquiring knowledge. He commented that ‘A blind man studies by his touch that disposition required between the parts of a whole to enable it to be called beautiful’.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, handling objects was a routine part of visits to early museums and private collections. The curator or owner would guide guests around their collection, providing information about objects and offering them up to be handled. Today, the Museum’s duty of care, to preserve and protect objects in its collections, and the inherent risks of allowing objects to be handled, do not sit easily with this fervour for tactile experiences.
One solution is to provide ‘touch objects’ – objects mounted in the galleries with the specific intention of being handled by visitors, without requiring Museum staff supervision. These objects may be Museum objects, accurate replicas, or specially produced examples of materials and decorative techniques. There are many ‘touch object’s already to be found throughout the V&A’s existing galleries, including: a wise owl supervising the Sculpture Galleries; glazed terracotta; carved examples of different woods types; a pilaster capital; a door knocker; a steel mitten gauntlet to try on; examples of decorative ceramic techniques; and in the new Furniture Galleries, samples of materials which trigger further information to be appear on a hi-tech interactive table when they are held.
Although ‘touch objects’ can most obviously benefit those with visual impairments, all visitors can benefit from being able to experience objects in a manner not typically possible within museums. The new Europe galleries will include a number of ‘touch objects’ incorporated into the interpretation provided for visitors. Each of these ‘touch objects’ will have an audio point next to them; allowing visitors to hear more about the history and context of the object and to direct attention to specific aspects of the object to explore through touch (e.g. design, materials, construction). Visitors can choose for themselves whether to embrace 18th century notions of passing judgement on the ‘beauty’ of the objects.
Curators, Conservators and colleagues from the Museum’s Learning & Interpretation Department worked together to select suitable ‘touch objects’ for the Europe Galleries. Guiding their decisions was the need for objects to be interesting, informative and durable, and to ensure that they will not be at risk of major damage or theft.
One of the ‘touch objects’ will be this finely carved oak boss, made in early 18th century France. ‘Boss’ is an architectural term for a protrusion or knob of wood or stone. They are often found at the intersection of vaulted ceilings but it is thought that this one was probably used as wall or door panelling. Visitors will be able to feel the elegant Rocaille (stylised shell and scroll-like motifs) design decorating this boss.
Another of the ‘touch objects’ relates to this most impressive steel fireplace, made by the Russian Imperial Arms Factory in Tula, around 1770-1800.The fireplace, made from forged and cut steel, is complete with its fender, fire-irons, tools and ornaments. The applied decoration of gilt copper and brass and cut steel introduce a range of textured surfaces and help to create an impression of a jewelled fireplace.
In this case, the ‘touch object’ will be a reproduction of an element of the fireplace’s decoration. To identify which element would be most suitable to reproduce we went to look at the fireplace in the Conservation studios, where it was busy being worked on (becoming ever more shiny!). Conveniently for us, this work meant that many pieces had been detached, so we could look closely at the different elements that make up the overall object. Involved in this session were: Donna – the Metal Conservator working on the fireplace, Lucy – a member of the Europe Team from the Museum’s Learning & Interpretation Department, Barry – the V&A’s Equality & Access Officer, Suzana – Barry’s assistant, and Elizabeth Hamilton – the V&A volunteer guide who is writing and delivering the audio scripts (Elizabeth really is a remarkable volunteer and in 2010 received an MBE for her work in the V&A!).
After some discussion, the decision was made to reproduce the centre of one of the eleven oval wreaths which make up the fender – an oval back plate with fluted edges, mounted with two cast gilt-brass sprays of wheat.
Barry and Elizabeth both spent time familiarising themselves with the texture and features of the fender, carefully considering which qualities would be best to draw out in the accompanying audio. I will update you on how the audio recordings go in a future blog entry.
The Museum regularly provides Touch Tours Tours blind & partially-sighted visitors.For information about upcoming Touch Tours please refer to the What’s On guide: