What if… we could touch paintings?

There’s something magical about touching paintings: feeling the roughness of dry brush next to the slick smooth of linseed saturated oil paint. Even raw canvas sneaking through is fascinating to the touch. There’s something active in it, almost like an investigation. You sweeping your fingertips across the paint, mimicking the movement of the artist’s brush. You move around the piece, exploring it. You feel the rise and fall. You layer tactile information over what you see, read, or can hear someone telling you. Although this kind of active, multimodal learning is most often touted as a solution for distractible kids or visitors with disabilities, its very compelling for general audiences as well.

Unfortunately there’s that whole conservation issue with people touching paintings.

Then the Van Gogh Museum produced its “relievos” — full color, full scale, beautiful 3D printed replicas of the master’s most famous paintings.

Van Gogh “relievos” on display in Hong Kong, courtesy of HyperAllergic

With a £22,000 price tag, the museum clearly isn’t thinking of these relievos as a teaching tool. Not to mention the inherent questions they would throw up: Hung on a wall, how would a child, or a visitor in a wheelchair for that matter, reach the canvas to touch it? Would it even exhibited be next to the original because, if so, how would you highlight which paintings could be touched and which couldn’t?  How much space would it take up if you needed two of each painting?

No “solution” is perfect, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t merit in the idea.

What if we could use these panels like natural history museums have for years: a reasonably sized excerpt displayed alongside other didactic information, at an accessible height, directly before the object itself?

Courtesy of Ruly, LLC, at the Wyoming State Museum

We solve the scale, confusion, and price problem at the same time. In this way, there would be no confusion between object and learning tool, no difficulty in reaching or touching. Placed directly in front of the canvas, it would provoke a back and forth looking between the touch object and the original.

By excerpting, not shrinking, one preserves that ability to investigate detail and recreate the motion of the artist’s hand. There’s truth to it: feeling the actual rise of a pile of oil paint, or the depth of an incised line without it either emphasized or flattened. Keeping the colors stable helps all visitors, especially those with low vision, move between the tactile and the original, depending on their level of sight. Made wide enough, it could even be a great space for visitors to share, working together to explore a piece.

What do you think? Useful tool or distraction? What would a museum be like if, in front of each piece, there was a station to touch? How differently would we behave?

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