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A Touchy Subject

funny-picture-dog-on-a-keep-of-signLeading tours in a historic house filled with objects and furnishings has its benefits and drawbacks. While it gives us an opportunity to immerse visitors in a particular time, we can open the door for one of the most grievous of museum offenses: touching. Those of you who work at or have visited a historic house museum may know the following situation pretty well:

A docent is leading a tour, visitors are engaged and asking questions, things are going well, and then it happens. A visitor leans up against a piece of furniture, or they are so curious about the maker of a teacup that they can’t resist picking it up. Startled by this brazen museum no-no, the docent shouts, “Don’t touch that!”  The visitor is surprised, apologetic, uncomfortable, and afraid of being admonished again. We know that it wasn’t the intention of the docent to embarrass the visitor and that the visitor isn’t a habitual rule breaker, but how can this scenario have a happier ending? Here are some suggestions we recently discussed with our docents at the Homestead Museum.

  • Stop it before it starts. Before heading out on tour, we all give the museum rules. However, it is good to remind visitors again of the “no touching” rule before heading into a house and/or area where objects are easy to touch.
  • Recruit an extra pair of eyes. Young school-aged children tend to be great helpers. If you have a child or children on your tour, recruit them to be your extra pair of eyes to make sure that people are not touching. This also serves as a good reminder to guardians to set a good example.
  • Explain why the rule exists. Sometimes people need to know why they can’t do something, so explain why the “no touching” rule isn’t an arbitrary one. Some docents explain to visitors that we all have oils on our hands, and no matter how much we wash them, these oils remain and can damage objects over time. That is why curators wear gloves when they handle objects. Since we don’t have gloves on, we can help preserve objects for future enjoyment (including the houses) by not touching them.
  • Take advantage of the hands-on items. Make sure that you provide opportunities for touching by using things like reproduction letters, photographs, and objects. Just make it clear to your visitor that they are replicas, and therefore fine to handle.
  • Remain calm. If you see a visitor absentmindedly leaning against the wall or touching an object, try not to shout at them or single them out. Make a statement about how important it is not to touch objects or lean against things. People often get the hint.
  • Set a good example. Docents should be mindful to not open doors and cabinets that are not part of the tour, and refrain from resting their hands on things like furniture or walls, or picking up historic items so people can get a closer look. Let the visitor know that the rules apply to everyone—even staff!

This post comes from Gennie Truelock, Programs Coordinator at the Homestead Museum in the City of Industry, CA. In this dynamic position, she develops and implements engaging programs for audiences ranging from preschoolers to seniors. Gennie serves as team chair of the museum’s training and living history teams (portraying a 1920s character herself!), and assists with exhibition planning.

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