Don’t touch! hands off! art, blindness and the conservation of expertise
- Publisher: Sage Journals
The embargo on touching in museums is increasingly being brought into question, not least by blind activists who are calling for greater access to collections. The provision of opportunities to touch could be read as a potential conflict between established optic knowledge and illicit haptic experience, between the conservation of objects and access to collections. Instead I suggest that touch is not necessarily other to the museum; rather, the status of who does the touching and knowing is crucial and not the use of touch per se. It is expert territory and vested academic interests that are at stake here. Using Bruno Latour’s (1993) conceptions of hybrid networks and purified zones of academic practice, I then explore what the unacknowledged existence of touch means for museums and for notions of authority more generally. I suggest that if the apparent boundaries of disciplines are unconvincing in practice, then the possibility of expert knowledge is seriously undermined. Blind people’s demand for access through touch is not then a challenge of one paradigm to another but implicitly questions the accreditation of authority itself. As such it forms part of a wider institutional shift with regard to expertise and an increased need for negotiating between different conceptual frameworks. The ocularcentric bias of museums is increasingly being questioned by blind and visually impaired visitors who emphasize touch as a learning and aesthetic experience. This challenge is contentious not least because it ostensibly brings the individuals’ rights of access into direct conflict with museum conservation. I argue that concerns over conservation can, however, mask and serve to legitimate preconceptions about who should have access to collections; what counts as damage or dirt; and the means by which art and artefacts can be understood or enjoyed. It is expertise rather than the conservation of objects which is at stake. This article suggests that in campaigning for access through touch, blind people physically move beyond the barriers which reserve contact for the museum elite and simultaneously establish the viability of learning in a way that is not sanctioned by the art historical community. Thus resistance to touch in museums is not so much a concern for preservation as a defence of territory and expertise.