Touch but Don’t Look

In Hong Kong, Museums on January 11, 2011 by triotriotrio

Touch but don't look!

I began exploring museums in Hong Kong by visiting the Hong Kong Museum of Art. I was pleasantly surprised to find an easy way-finding system that explained where tickets could be obtained as well as where all the exhibitions could be found. I was also pleased to find that the museum not only displays beautiful works of art in a traditional setting but they were also hosting a special exhibition called Touching Art – Louvre’s Sculptures in Movement. It was a great opportunity for me to see some beautiful ceramics and also to catch a glimpse at a cutting edge exhibition that focuses on tactile stimuli!

The Preparation: The museum prepares the visitor to see the Touching Art exhibition by first asking them to thoroughly wash their hands. Second, each visitor is given a large pair of sunglasses that completely blocks out all light and sight. Lastly, all visitors are instructed to remove rings, bracelets and watches. No items can be present on the person’s arms. I thought this is a great way to make people focus. These acts prepare the visitor to think about “viewing” art in a completely differently way. I was on board.

Within the gallery exhibit are eighteen sculptures and reliefs carefully reproduced from the famous Louvre in Paris. The gallery is like visiting old friends; each piece is an iconic work that represents the finest of their age. Each visitor, even with a basic art history background, would immediately recognize the Venus de Milo or Michelangelo’s the Rebel Slave. Once again this helps to reinforce to the visitor that this is a new way to experience art, even with pieces that they may already be familiar with.

But what did I experience when I went in? Around each piece was a group of adults. Each person looking intently and closely but nobody was touching. And nobody was wearing the blinding sunglasses. Visitors have been taught so well not to touch that now that they can, they can’t seem to break out of the mold.

But just then an amazing scene came into focus. Fifty seven year olds from a local school descended on the gallery. In matching blue and white school uniforms they covered the gallery in no time. And they must have been instructed to touch the art because that is exactly what they started doing. They were crazed. It was as they have never been able to touch before and now they were going to get in every last one before that privilege was taken away. I became encouraged; I thought this is exactly what the curators of the show must have had in mind.

But what I saw next made me think the opposite. As you may have guessed there were certain parts of the anatomy of the sculptures that drew greater attention than others. I must admit I began to feel uncomfortable watching as a group of young boys groped poor Venus. And on the other side of the room Mercury was receiving equal treatment that made me blush. Perhaps the spirits of the affectionate Roman gods were not offended?

When the crowd was ushered out I tried to regain some dignity and re-experience the exhibition. I will admit that touching the sculpture did provide a different understanding than just by looking. In particular, I enjoyed thinking that this is the same perspective that the sculptor would have had as he crafted these works many centuries before. And that made me smile.

The sculptures were selected to illustrate Effort, Run, Dance, Take Off and Fall. These concepts were well chosen and I commend the curator of the show by creating a new way of experiencing art. But I do remain unclear if this experience is worthwhile or just a fad. What I am certain about is that on this day those schoolchildren were touched by art and they touched back.


2 Responses to “Touch but Don’t Look”

  1. Robert, this sounds like interesting experience in more ways that one! But I’m not clear what role the sunglasses played (or were supposed to play). You said you put them on as part of your preparation for entering then couldn’t see anything. But, inside the exhibition, you were clearly looking. How did you proceed from the preparation area to the exhibition if you couldn’t see? How would the exhibition have been different without this component?

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