Mar. 4, 2007

Please Touch, Pick Up, Use, Press, and Pass Around

Three weeks ago I visited Museum London for the official opening of Invention to Innovation, the exhibit this year’s Public History class put together. All of our hard work paid off! As I mentioned in a previous post, the Public History crew needed to be a little more intentional, and in the last week before our contribution to the exhibit was due, we pulled it off! We came to a consensus on our big idea, narrative, and structure, which definitely created a more unified exhibit of which I think we are all pretty proud.

As I walked through the different rooms of the exhibit, I have to admit that I didn’t read all of the text. I was too busy looking at the cool stuff that we were presenting! There are some really great pieces that have a lot of intricate working parts, such as old type-writers, a roller organ, and a massive linotype machine. A plethora of items have buttons to be pressed, cranks to be turned, and levers to be pulled; however, next to most of these artifacts are signs asking the visitor to please not touch. Reluctantly, I demonstrated self-restraint and obeyed the signs.

During the operational life of the artifacts, these items sat in offices, factories, or living rooms where they were touched and used by their operators. In a museum though, the artifacts are cut off from that human interaction, and the visitor loses an opportunity to interact with the past. Did an operator need to be strong to pull a particular lever? How hard was to get clear reception on that radio? The ability to use an item on display would help visitors to relate with individuals in the past who had to use a phonograph or Balopticon slide projector. Perhaps it might be better to have signs saying “Please use with care in order to allow others to learn from our artifacts as well.”

I know… the signs say “Please do not touch” because artifacts are often delicate. If the items are damaged, future visitors will not be able to have the same experience… But what if the items on display could be broken without the consequence of forever losing a piece of our past? Replicas are already a ubiquitous part of many museums: dinosaur fossils, parts of dioramas, the costumes historical actors wear, and even entire open-air museums are replicas that are designed to help visitors interact with and understand the past! If an object looks, feels, and works the same way as an authentic artifact, it can have a much bigger educational impact by being used than the actual artifact that sits protected in a glass case.

In addition to the educational value that using replica items at a museum would have, museum gift stores could also sell replicas as another source of revenue, thus capitalizing on a market interested in items with an antique look.

For now, it is important to obey the “Please do not touch” signs; however, when you come to the Invention to Innovation exhibit, think about how you might learn about the past differently if you could reach out and touch it.