After visiting the Ontario Museum of Archeology, I noticed that many artifacts were kept behind glass walls. For humans, touch is one of our strongest senses from which we gain access to information about an object; we are able to feel texture, irregularities, and weight. Going to a museum however, is quite different. We are told not to touch artifacts, and in many cases, we can’t because everything is behind a glass wall. While this is logical because it is damaging to the artifact, there is a feeling of authenticity I associate from touching a tangible piece of history.
Each artifact in a museum holds value – much of it comes from how it is presented; if the same artifact was on a table and we could touch it, a great amount of prestige associated with the artifact would be lost. However, the action of placing an object behind a glass wall separates the museum viewer from being able to physically interact with the artifact because the viewer is limited to experiencing the artifact through mere sight. The viewer has to behave according to numerous standards, both stemming from social expectations and rules enforced by the museum. The viewer has to be careful not to touch the paintings, keeping hands in their pockets, unless they are carefully pointing at a painting while keeping a safe distance between themselves and the art – displaying their body as a contained viewing performance exactly like the artifacts on display at the museum. This experience makes the museum, as a public space, a grey area.
Museums act as a static space that preserve artifacts, while failing to preserve a tactile object’s purpose; by being placed behind glass, artifacts that were designed to be in conjunction with the body exist as art that can only be viewed in eternal immobility. The human body however, learns by using its sense of touch and is deprived of being able to use its primary method of learning. The viewer has no other option but to solely internalize the object that is displayed in front of them. Museums are therefore faced with a strange difficulty; on one hand, artifacts must be kept behind glass in order to prevent deterioration, and on the other hand, are preventing viewers from being able to tangibly interact with the artifact – thus reducing the artifact’s value in terms of an experience.
Feature image: Museum of Ontario Archaeology Facebook Page