Can I touch it? – rules and risks of touching works in art galleries


Being able to touch an object you’re looking at can be an important part of appreciating and responding to it.

Touch is an important part of our learning experience, beginning from infancy. As we mature, we rely less on touch and more on looking and listening, but the desire to touch objects in which we’re interested is never far away. Whether you’re shopping for a shirt, choosing an avocado, or selecting a rug, being able to feel the object helps in your assessment of that thing.

Sadly, it is rarely appropriate for galleries to invite viewers to touch works of art. While there are some limited exceptions (eg; works deliberately intended to be handled or added to by viewers), the general rule in an art gallery is “please do not touch”.

Why is touching discouraged?

There are good reasons why touching art is generally frowned upon. Dirt particles, body oils and perspiration on our hands can stain or corrode art works, and damage to the surface can be caused by poking, stroking or knocks. While a single light touch alone may cause minimal harm, a series of small touches by a number of people over time can quickly add up to a multitude of interferences with the art work’s surface.

The stakes are raised when the art work is a one-off original which, if damaged, may be difficult, costly or impossible to repair or replace. The risk of damage is further compounded with fragile works (such as unframed works on paper) and works already exhibiting signs of wear and age (eg; paintings with cracked or flaking surfaces).

Even apparently hardy materials can be damaged by touching. Porous material such as wood and stone both absorb oil and dirt, while fingerprints can stain even hard surfaces such as marble and metal.

How do I know when not to touch?

In public art museums, bans on touching may be communicated in a number of ways. There may be express DO NOT TOUCH signs, implied restraints on touching (such as white boundary lines on the floor), or the use of physical barriers (eg; displaying fragile objects behind glass). Many public art museums also employ security guards, or enlist the aid of docents, to assist in reminding viewers not to get too close to the works on display.

Commercial art galleries, while no less concerned about the potential risk of damage, are less inclined to use prohibitive signage, physical barriers or security staff to keep curious hands at bay. In their desire to connect viewers with the art they show, commercial galleries often bravely rely on little more than the public’s good sense to refrain from touching the works. The lines can become blurred when art galleries also display small glass, ceramic or textile pieces, as it can become unclear to visitors which objects may be handled, and which are strictly hands-off. 

The best approach is to assume that works in a gallery should never be touched, except with express consent or invitation of the person looking after the gallery space.

The challenge for galleries, both public and commercial, is to find the right balance between protecting the art works in their care, and giving viewers reasonable opportunity to engage with those pieces. Great art should inspire and engage viewers, and its power to do so is enhanced by removing as many physical and psychological barriers as possible between the art and its intended audience.

What could possibly go wrong?

While ZIMMERMAN has not incurred any serious damage from viewers touching art, accidents can and do happen when people get too close to the works on display.

Perhaps the most expensive example is that of New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2010. A woman taking an adult education class at the museum lost her balance and fell against The Actor, a six foot tall Pablo Picasso painting valued at USD130 million. While the woman was uninjured, the painting was not so fortunate, sustaining a 15cm tear in the lower right hand corner.

In 2012, the Art Gallery of New South Wales was reportedly unimpressed when a gallery visitor kissed a 19th-century statue of Narcissus on the buttocks. The cheeky peck left a large red lipstick stain on the marble sculpture – adding this to a total of 89 incidents of damage recorded by the NSW gallery within a three year period.

More recently, in March 2014 a 19th century plaster cast of a statue from the Hellenistic era was damaged while on display in Milan. The statue, depicting a drunken satyr, must have seemed a great backdrop for a humorous selfie – until, that is, the statue’s leg shattered under the amateur photographer’s weight. No doubt Italian officials were aghast to discover their drunken satyr sculpture in what was, quite literally, a legless state.


For further information contact ZIMMERMAN - www.zimmerman.co.nz - This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.