One of my favorite Onion headlines reads: “Struggling Museum Now Allowing Patrons to Touch Paintings.” The article’s featured image depicts people in a gallery doing just that. A man in the background appears to be taking a painting off the wall, while a woman in the foreground rubs her face against another piece. A superfluous museum guard stands by merely watching. The caption explains, “Met officials feel that a few smudged or punctured O’Keefe’s are a small price to pay for renewed interest in the arts.” The whole triumvirate — headline, image, caption — creates the perfect satirical pitch, eliciting immediate laughter. We know this is wrong, but why? Has the art world gone mad? Perhaps the absurd scenario provokes us to wonder: Why can’t we touch the art in museums?
I have worked as a guard at several different art museums since 2001, and I can’t help but notice an uptick in visitors touching the artwork. It’s usually nothing malicious. Anyone can momentarily forget the universal yet unspoken rules of museum etiquette and reach out to feel the surface of something. I get it. That’s the power of art. Like a magic trick, it inspires investigation: How’d they do that? Is that real? What’s this made of? Indeed, the urge to employ multiple senses when experiencing art is perfectly natural and quite common. Film and theater combine elements of sight and sound to make us feel as though we were part of the story. The culinary arts stimulate our senses of taste and smell. Music, too, is more than just an aural experience. Rap and rock performances often include dance, lasers, lights, pyrotechnics, smoke machines, and clothing fashions to allure the eye and the ear. The various materials and textures of visual art almost beg to be touched. If seeing is believing, then touching is confirming.
Unfortunately, we cannot combine the senses when engaging with visual art. We may look, but never touch. That’s because the sort of work you find in an art museum is one of a kind. That is, visual art is not reproducible. (While there might be several prints or photographs in a series, they are usually limited editions.) Unlike similar institutions like libraries, art museums hold unique works of art, which cannot be taken out on loan. Books, movies, and music are mass-produced and reproducible. And as recipes are to cuisine, sheet music can resurrect a song to be perennially consumed by the listener. Not so with the visual or plastic arts. Once a work of visual art is damaged or destroyed, that’s it — it has been reduced or lost forever. Museum conservators can clean, fix, and repair art objects within reason but there is only so much they can do. Guards represent the first line of defense against the accidental or intentional damaging of art and are, as such, an extension of a museum’s conservation team. The job can be fairly slow most of the time as most visitors keep their distance from the art. But there are many instances when guards are absolutely necessary.
A recipe for certain disasters adds booze to the equation. Art museums tend to rent out their facilities for private events. On the face of it, this makes perfect sense as museums offer the ideal setting for anniversaries, galas, reunions, and weddings. The neoclassical or austere modernist architecture of their interior and exterior spaces lends the perfect backdrop to photographically document these special occasions. And, of course, there’s the art! The areas where people are allowed to eat and drink — atriums, halls, and courtyards — are usually far removed or cordoned off from the galleries that hold oil paintings on canvas and other more delicate artwork. However, there are often ancient artifacts like mosaics, statues, and vases that are tucked in and around the more communal spaces of an art museum where drinking and eating are allowed. While it is extremely difficult to get wine stains out of canvas, it’s not as easy as you might think to remove them from ceramics, marble, or tile. Admittedly, there’s a twist of irony here in that many of the ancient artifacts guards are paid to protect depict scenes of drunken revelry across their surfaces: Nymphs and satyrs guzzle down wine with Dionysian ecstasy in the images that appear on the very work we ask guests to step away from.
For the most part, after-hours renters are as well behaved as daytime visitors. Every now and then though, there will be a very rowdy group who have clearly not been inside a museum in quite some time (if ever) and indiscriminately touch everything. Bad things usually go down at such events: Something breaks, there’s a fistfight, or the DJ goes over the permitted decibel level causing a portion of the interior architecture to crack. I’ve seen all of the above at different places. During an event earlier this year, I witnessed a drag queen twerk on a World War II-era bronze of a mother and child looking up into the sky in anguish, arms outstretched. The dancer was great. I just wished they hadn’t leaned against such a poignant work of art while strutting their stuff.
When we read the outlandish headline I mentioned at the beginning of this piece, we laugh. We laugh while subconsciously understanding the imperative to protect and preserve great works of art. We laugh because it’s so absurd to think that art museums would ever allow their patrons to manhandle the art. We laugh while lamenting: Is nothing sacred?