Three Reasons Why You Can't Touch Most Artwork

18 March 2016
 Categories: , Blog


If you like to visit art galleries and shops, like Gallery Phillip, you've no doubt seen signs asking you not to touch the artwork. Sometimes the reason is obvious, like not touching old oil paintings that could flake. But other times, there seems to be no point, especially if the art is brand new, in an interactive installation or non-gallery environment, or made from a material that doesn't break so easily, like metal.

However, there are some very good reasons not to touch artwork no matter its age or composition. Here are three reasons why you need to leave the art alone unless you're specifically told that it's okay to touch it.

To Follow Passive Conservation

Art that goes on display, either long-term as part of an exhibit or short-term as part of a gallery sale, is meant to be enjoyed by all who view it. That means keeping the art in as good a condition as possible. If people constantly touch art, the material can degrade. The Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, U.K., had an experimental art installation called a touchometer that was half exposed and half shielded by a clear plate; visitors were allowed to touch the uncovered portion. The degradation seen on the uncovered side is obvious and drastic. And this degradation can also happen if people merely get too close to the art because body heat can change the temperature and humidity around the piece.

To keep art looking good, then, the gallery or museum has to do something called passive conservation. It basically means leaving the art alone and keeping its environmental surroundings as stable as possible. So, you as the visitor must stay away from the art and not touch it or get too close to it.

To Avoid Stains and Shiny Fingerprints

Think about all the times you've touched your face, touched a random staircase or balcony railing, touched a paper with ink on it, and so on. Even if you think your hands are clean, they can have skin oils, dirt, and other stains on them that you didn't realize were there. If you touch the artwork, you risk leaving these behind. Not only does that pose a problem for passive conservation, but it also has the immediate effect of ruining the sight of the art for many other visitors until someone at the gallery cleans off the stains. And believe it or not, fingerprints can actually etch into strong mediums, like metal, and ruin other strong materials like textiles or stone, since they're porous.

To Lower Liability

Another issue is liability. What happens if you touch the artwork and stumble, breaking part of the piece or smashing through a canvas? Chances are you're not going to be able to afford the price to repair or replace the item, especially if it's an antique. Staying well away from the art protects your wallet.

If you want to find art installations that you're allowed to touch, or if you still want to know more about why you can't touch the displays in a gallery, contact art shops, galleries, and museums in your area. Many have interactive exhibits where you can play around with the art and get the need to touch things out of your system before moving on to non-touchable exhibits.