Why do museum visitors touch exhibits without permission? The professional literature on the subject treats illicit object touching as a form of vandalism and assumes that visitors are ignorant and destructive. To examine other possibilities I went to the British Museum and asked the gallery attendants about visitors who touched the objects on display. I sat and watched what the visitors did, talked to them about their motivations, and followed the trail of grease they left behind. My conclusions, which I outline in this paper, changed the way I think about museums. They are dirtier certainly, but also places of desire, play, imaginative leaps, and magical thinking.
Fiona Candlin is Professor of Museology in the Department of History of Art, Birkbeck, University of London, where she is Programme Director of the MA Museum Cultures. Candlin is the author of Micromuseology: An Analysis of Small Independent Museums (Bloomsbury, 2015) and Art, Museums, and Touch (Manchester, 2010) and co-editor of The Object Reader (Routledge, 2009) with Raiford Guins. In 2016 she was awarded major grant funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council for a four-year research project entitled ‘Mapping Museums: the history and geography of the UK independent sector 1960–2020’, on which she collaborates with Alexandra Poulovassilis, Professor of Computer Science, Birkbeck. Candlin also works with the Bishopsgate Institute on the Micromuseums Archive and posts regular blogs on work in progress. Her next book is provisionally titled When, Where, and What is a Museum. blogs.bbk.ac.uk/mapping-museums