As an intern working this summer with the North Carolina Museum of Art’s Conservation Department, I’ve focused on the treatment of sculptures in the Museum Park. I’ve been up close and personal with much of the visitor-related damage to these sculptures, so with this in mind, I’d like to share a few of the many reasons it is important to not touch works of art.
The author cleans the Henry Moore sculpture that graces the exterior of West Building. Mother Nature can take a toll on art as well.
Touch is a crucial part of our learning experience, beginning in our infancy. Though we rely on it less as we mature, that desire to touch is often still tempting. During nearly every visit to an art gallery with children (or adults who are children at heart), we are exposed to the warning “Don’t touch!” Visitors generally know it is not okay to touch art, but why?
First and foremost, touching a work of art makes it dirty. Fingerprints leave deposits of oil, dirt, skin cells, and other debris on a surface. Porous surfaces like wood, stone, bronze, bone, paper, textiles (including the canvas of paintings), and ceramics can easily absorb oil and grime. This oil causes darkening or staining and can chemically damage the surface of an artwork.
This surface damage can be seen as cloudy varnish on a painting. On metal surfaces, such as silver, the mild acids in our fingerprints can actually cause corrosion, leaving a perfect outline of our fingerprint. Touching can also result in scratching and breakage. Aged paint is often brittle and easily damaged. A single misguided movement can cause sudden destruction, and repeated touching over a long period of time can result in irreparable damage. For instance, repeated touching can locally polish a metal object, removing the patina and leaving the area vulnerable to further corrosion.
A young NCMA visitor enjoys peering into Yayoi Kusama's dazzling Light of Life (2018) without touching the artwork's mirrored panels.
It’s helpful to remember that objects in our collection have already lived a long and well-loved life before coming to the Museum. While we take measures to protect visitors from risks associated with displayed artworks, it is not always obvious to visitors how an object is constructed or how stable it is. Some damages are repairable, while others are permanent, spoiling the artist’s original vision and the work of art’s impact for future visitors.
As key pieces of our cultural heritage, art needs to be treated with the utmost respect. That way, it can continue to be shared and enjoyed for centuries to come.