Touch and the Enjoyment of Sculpture: Exploring the Appeal of Renaissance Statuettes

Review

of an Exhibition

by Claire Smith

Published on March 21, 2012

  • Description:

    The Touch and the Enjoyment of Sculpture exhibition at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, developed in partnership with the Johns Hopkins University’s Brain Science Institute, brings together art and science to create a unique exhibition. I’ll begin this review with a minor disclaimer: I am currently interning at the Walters, but my interest in it is purely that of a visitor and museum technology geek.

    The exhibition is contained in a single gallery. Despite its small size, the exhibition has a multitude of objects to look at, to read, and yes, to touch. As its title suggests, the defining element of the exhibition is the focus on touch itself, and the pleasure the human brain derives from touch. The exhibition explores this idea in many ways: a case of small Renaissance statuettes that were designed to be held in the hand, a case of other objects, such as a computer mouse, that are designed to ergonomically fit in the hand, large scale reproductions from other works in the museum that in some way represent or depict touch, a small display that explains and demonstrates why most art museums ask you not to touch, and finally, the technological component.

    In fact, the technology is the centerpiece. More than just another means to engage the visitors, it in fact is one of the primary motivations for the exhibition. It consists of 6 touch stations that use iPads to record visitor responses and a large video monitor that displays aggregate data recorded at the touch stations. (There is also, in addition to a paper guestbook for visitor comments, an iPad set up to allow for electronic visitor comments to be submitted.)

    The touch stations consist of between 3-4 objects of varying shapes, materials, and textures, labeled alphabetically. The visitor is invited to touch an item (displayed on the screen of the iPad), evaluate how it feels in the hand, and then select a number between 1-10 that best represents how “pleasant” or “unpleasant” the item is to the touch. After selecting that number on the iPad screen, it instantly moves to the next item at the station. Visitors are requested to evaluate all items at a single station before moving on, though they are also invited to evaluate the same group of objects as many times as they wish.

    The stations each have a different purpose. Along one wall, the items to touch are simple shapes—at one, “The Aesthetics of Texture,” three flat squares offer a variety of textures to choose from. At another, the three objects are half-spheres of different sizes, evaluating the “Aesthetics of Curvature”. In the center of the gallery, a small table holds another three stations. Here, the objects to touch are replicas of the statuettes in the exhibition. Depending on the station, the objects have been recreated in different materials, or “morphed” in size or shape.

    The final component is the video monitor that displays the data that has been collected. A rotating series of screens offered a graph showing the average response to each object in the various stations. Below the graphs are the original hypotheses for the station, i.e. “We hypothesize that Object B will be perceived as least pleasant.” It was interesting to see how the hypotheses lined up with the data collected—in most cases, they held true to varying degrees.

    I do have some concerns about the reliability of the data collected. When I visited the gallery, a group of elementary aged students were also present, most of whom were enjoying touching the objects and making selections on the iPads without thought or knowledge as to what the iPads were actually there for. I helped one student understand the instructions, but it took her some time—and several incorrect selections on the iPads—before she realized she was meant to be answering a specific question about a specific object. The iPad interface is fairly straightforward, at least for adult viewers, who I believe are intended to be the primary audience for this exhibition. But in a museum where most things are off-limits to touch, a gallery intended for the specific purpose of touching the objects has a strong pull for younger audiences.

    I would have also been interested in learning more about how the data is to be used. Though the exhibition gallery offers a rich experience, with a great deal to look at and read, there was not much offered to visitors in the way of extending their engagement with the content of the exhibition outside of the exhibition itself.

    A final note: as a iPad fanatic myself, I was a bit disappointed with the installation of the iPads. When I first heard about the iPads being used. I loved the idea that the technology used in the exhibition offered another example of design that took into account how the object felt in the human hand. But the iPads were locked into stands, which, while I understand is necessary for security reasons, took away that experience of the iPads—instead interacting with them was no different than interacting with any other touchscreen.

    Overall, though, the exhibition is well worth seeing as a new model for merging art and science in a museum setting.

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