Go back to article: Challenges of conservation: working objects

Benefits of operating objects – enriching visitor experience and wellbeing

As conservators we are professionally responsible for the long-term survival of the objects in our care, but we also have a responsibility towards people. Much of what is offered in museums relies on visitors using their visual sense alone, when in fact we use all our senses in our daily lives. We use our hands to explore and understand the material world around us; our senses of hearing, smell and taste are intimately linked to our well-being. Over the last few years there has been an increasing interest in the senses generally (see for example Classen, 2005; Vannini et al, 2012; Howes and Classen, 2014).

As long ago as 2002 a report for the Museums Libraries and Archives Council in the UK (then Resource) concluded that more museum objects could be made available for touch and handling (Munday, 2002). More recently the importance of touch as a way of interacting with museum objects has been explored at a number of conferences and workshops and gradually the old ‘do not touch’ rule in museums is being re-evaluated (Pye, 2007; Chatterjee, 2008; Conservation’s Catch 22, 2009). Handling unfamiliar objects such as an old black leather bottle can be intriguing; contact with an ancient object such as a precisely flaked Neolithic flint blade may be fascinating. That this form of access is engaging and enjoyable is acknowledged, for example, in the provision of handling desks by the British Museum, and by the National Trust’s attempts to conjure up the ‘atmosphere’ of a country house by providing appropriate sounds and smells and by encouraging visitors to pick things up or sit on the furniture (Cowell, 2009). Interesting work in hospitals has shown that touching, exploring and discussing museum objects can have measurable beneficial effects on the recovery of patients (Ander et al, 2013).

Operating large and complex machinery undoubtedly presents difficulties (of staffing, supervision, and safety). So would operating the more modest stuff of past everyday lives also be engaging? Would it be possible to provide experience not just of handling but of operating some of the smaller objects often sitting passively in large numbers in museum stores? Even partial operation – pressing the keys of an early typewriter, rotating the dial on a telephone, using the treadle on a lathe, or viewing a subject through a plate camera – gives some sense of how different these objects are from their modern equivalents, and what they were like to use.

Figure 9

Colour photograph of a Willcox and Gibbs chain-stitch sewing machine from 1914 with accompanying instruction booklet

Willcox & Gibbs chain-stitch sewing machine, c 1914

Figure 9 shows a Willcox & Gibbs sewing machine first manufactured in USA in 1857 as ‘the first low-priced…machine for the domestic market’ (Forty, 1986, p 96). This particular one was given to my grandmother on her marriage in the early twentieth century, and is the machine I learned to sew on. It is beautifully made and runs as smoothly as ever; its characteristic sound is an important feature and for this reason it is known in the family as ‘Mutton-mutton’; it also has a splendidly oily smell. Only by operating it myself do I understand its idiosyncrasies, and only by using it have I had an intimate experience of a machine first produced in the middle of the nineteenth century and which must have changed many women’s lives. 

Component DOI: http://dx.doi.org/10.15180/160608/015