TEG Tactile Access to Collections Workshop
Today my research has taken me to The House of Illustration in London’s Kings Cross. This amazing building, at 2 Granary Square, was designed by Lewis Cubitt in 1850 as part of the Kings Cross Goods Yard. In 2014 it opened as the House of Illustration when the area was redeveloped. I was there to attend the Touring Exhibition Group (TEG) workshop Tactile Access to Collections: Maximising and Managing Public Object Handling Opportunities.
TEG was set up when the Circulation Department of the Victoria and Albert Museum was closed down in order to represent smaller museums and advocate for the circulation of exhibits from larger and national museums to smaller regional venues (for an account see the Wikipedia page about the group, which was clearly written by someone with considerable insider knowledge of the organisation and its history).
The Tactile Access to Collections workshop was developed for curatorial and learning staff who want to implement ‘opportunities and an infrastructure for the public to handle objects from their collections’. Twenty participants gathered for today’s session. We began with a group exercise based on a selection of objects provided by the workshop convenor, Charlotte Dew, in which we were asked to make note of what we could tell about objects simply by looking at them. This exercise revealed that observation is the best way to determine the colour of an object, and a good way to determine its shape and any symbolism, but looking proved to be inadequate as a way of determining texture, materials and manufacturing technique. A pair of bowls in our selection of objects could have been moulded or 3D printed. A small battleship could have been plastic, ceramic or metal. A necklace could, at first glance, have been jet or French jet (glass) but closer observation revealed mould marks meaning it was plastic. This state of looking but not touching was frustrating.
Next we were asked to handle the objects wearing gloves. This exercise made clear to me that handling and touching are not the same thing. I was able to handle the objects - pick up the bowl, turn it over, determine that it was not 3D printed, and was in fact moulded, but I couldn’t feel the texture. Wearing gloves, I was able to confirm that the battleship was metal, and a light metal like lead. But I still wanted to feel it without the gloves on. Similarly, I wanted to test the beaded necklace with my teeth to really confirm the material. This simple exercise revealed that one of the benefits derived from handling objects is that we simply have more information when we can use our hands, about weight and structure, and more still when we can use our sense of touch, about texture.
The workshop continued with an overview of approaches to object handling employed at a wide range of museums. Mediated object handling occurs at the Museum of London, Manchester Museum and the British Museum, which makes its collection of 500 handling objects accessible to visitors in trolleys in the galleries. Unmediated approaches are employed at the Horniman Museum (which has a handling collection of 3700 objects and counting) and Powell Cotton Museum which allows unmediated access to its museum objects on the basis that they are duplicated in the collections and the flow of visitors is manageable. We also discussed the cases of the Museum of Domestic Design and Architecture (MoDA) at Middlesex University and the Central St Martins archive, neither of which have exhibition spaces and both of which allow visitors to access the collections via a reading-room type of environment. Some of the museums we discussed allowed handling of their accessioned collections, whereas others had developed separate un-accessioned handling collections to reflect or otherwise contextualise their main collections.
We then moved to consider the risks involved in object handling, both to the objects and the people involved. Objects may go missing, become damaged, or suffer wear and tear. People engaged in handling may be at risk from certain materials such as lead and asbestos, or from actions such as pinching and cutting. We used a traffic light system questionnaire for determining the suitability of objects for handling, the risks to the objects of handling them, and the risks they present for participants. Green+ objects can leave the museum site, and objects graded green can be handled in unmediated situations. Amber objects can be handled under supervision. Red objects can only be demonstrated to visitors by museum staff. We took into account variables such as rarity, significance and cost in making our assessments of suitability for handling, as well as the benefits of restricted use of various types in offsetting risks.
Handling policies and procedures can be developed to assist in managing the risks of allowing tactile access to collections. They provide clarity across an organisation and can be used as a training tool with staff and volunteers. Policies can cover selection criteria for handling collections, storage, access and use, risk assessment procedure, processes for auditing handling collections and care and repair, procedures for reporting loss and damage, disposal of objects for various reasons (wear and tear, changed relevance), object documentation, and strategies for interpretation.
Planning meaningful engagement opportunities involving object handling can be facilitated using a session development matrix, learning theory and examples of good practice from other organisations. We planned a handling session using some medieval floor tiles held at Guildford Museums service, which communicated the importance of local trade in tiles between monasteries in the thirteenth century and encompassed handling clay as well as tiles. We referred to Learning for All and Generic Learning Outcomes to make sure that our session offered something for everyone. Detailed planning is clearly an asset in managing risk in relation to tactile access to collections.
Workshop facilitator Charlotte Dew asked us to bring an object from our collections to the workshop for discussion. I am not a curator and so my collection is a personal one. I decided to bring a ring holder shaped like a hand which was originally bought for one of my children, and then passed to the other child, before ending up with me as part of my hand project material. Although this object resembles a hand and forearm, it is unlike any hand I have ever seen on a living person. It most resembles the stylised, attenuated hand and arm of a mannequin, which is fitting given that its role is to display, as well as store, rings (and perhaps other jewellery too). This object is not special, it is made of plastic and is therefore intrinsically inexpensive, and it was purchased in a charity shop as a frippery. It is a product of a mass consumer society in which objects are so ubiquitous and legion that some of them are devalued and disregarded. But, in resembling a hand, and arm, this object seems to strive for personality, or human status, even as it sadly fails to attain it. Finally, within a museological setting, this object raises conservation issues due to its material - one which is either perfect or only fit for the scrap heap, according to designer Ezio Manzini, and yet will last for hundreds of years as the half-life of plastic is infamously long with threatening implication for our planet.
The workshop ended with role play in which participants modelled mediated handling sessions for a ‘good’ visitor, who respected the objects and asked questions, and a visitor who treated the objects clumsily. I realised through watching this role play that handling sessions are really opportunities for talk. The workshop had established that the majority of handling sessions involve some staff mediation of the objects for visitors and therefore involve conversations. Handling objects are prompts for dialogue in all but entirely unmediated access situations. The quiet reverie that I have been using in my hands-on archival research, and in some of my museum visits, is quite different to the closely planned curatorial and learning experiences delivered by museum staff with specific learning outcomes and ways of achieving these.