All was still, absolutely still as the moon rose over the National Mall in Washington, DC. The visitors had left, and the Freer|Sackler was eerily quiet. A shaft of moonlight pierced the museum’s skylights and flooded over the Japanese guardian figures standing proudly in the hallway. Under the magic of the moon, the figures slowly came to life. Towering over mere mortals and rippling with muscles, the guardians were an intimidating sight. In their earlier history, the figures stood guard in front of a Buddhist temple, but that night they battled fierce demons to defend the art collections of the Freer|Sackler.
The next morning, one of our security officers noticed a finger belonging to the guardian figure pictured above resting on its pedestal. It must have been a fearsome fight . . .
Well, OK, that’s probably not exactly how it happened. The only thing we know for sure about that incident in April 2009 is that the security officer found the finger and called me, Ellen Chase, objects conservator. At the Freer|Sackler, we do have figures who fight to defend the collection—but we aren’t made of wood (and we have much smaller muscles). We work in the Department of Conservation and Scientific Research.
Please Don’t Touch
When you go to museums, there often are a lot of “Please don’t touch” signs. But why? It’s because art is a lot more fragile than it seems. The guardians are so big that it is hard to imagine they are delicate, but the wood is at least six hundred years old and can be brittle. Instead of being sacrificed during a brutal fight to defend the museum, the finger more likely was knocked off by a visitor who got too close.
Besides the risk of breaking off a piece, there are a few really big reasons why we ask you to not touch the art:
- Touching an artwork just one time doesn’t seem like it would have much impact. But each time someone moves their hand across an object, a tiny bit is rubbed off. Over time, this contact can cause a lot of damage. For example, look inside this installation in the Smithsonian’s Natural History Museum:
See the part that looks shiny rather than dark? That’s where people have rubbed off the dark brown layer, or patina. It’s OK in this case—the museum intended for people to touch the object—but what if it weren’t?
- Everyone has oils on their hands. When you touch something, you leave some of those oils behind, creating your unique fingerprints. Those residues also can cause damage. Check out this lacquer lid of a ewer in our collection that has fingerprints etched into the surface from oils left behind. We can’t get the prints off; they are now part of the object.
- Unless you just washed your hands, remainders of anything else you touched recently will be left on the art as well. So those Nacho Cheese Doritos you had in your lunch? Yup. They’re on there too. As conservators, we wash our hands really well before working with art. And for really sensitive materials, like metals or lacquer or ivory, we also wear gloves.
Many works of art and historic objects are unique, the only examples of their kind in the world. And every time someone touches one of these objects in the gallery, we lose a little bit of history. Wanna see what I mean? Try this activity and see what happens—and send me pictures!
Take a piece of white printer paper and cover half of it with plastic wrap. Place it at the door of your house or classroom, or another place with a lot of foot traffic (the bathroom, maybe?). Ask everyone to touch or rub the material every time they walk by. Check back in two weeks. What has happened to the exposed part of the object? How does it compare to the side that is covered? What does it make you think about museums’ “don’t touch” policy?
This is the first in a series of blog posts for kids who are interested in art conservation. Follow along for more behind-the-scenes looks at why and how we care for our collections, working to protect and conserve art for you today as well as for future visitors. What do you want to know? We’d love to hear your questions and comments!