To Touch is to Know
By Rhys Edwards
It is in human nature to touch. Long before we have fully developed our ability to taste, smell, see, or hear, we learn about the world around us with our fingers, toes, and other extremities. We poke, stroke, grab, snatch, caress and grasp our way into an understanding of the physical components of our universe; we push, pull, bite and tear up the particulars of existence. Our skin cracks under the glare of the sun, and shivers in the breeze. With the recognition of texture comes the discernment of our material environs, and, to a certain extent, the consequent substantiation of our modes of being—for the man who earns his keep through the harvesting of crops, or the digging of graves, experiences reality very differently from the one who does so at the tap of a keyboard. To touch is to know.
A series of unusual events at MOA has recently led me to consider how this facet of human behavior underlies the ways visitors engage with the objects on display through the practice, often frowned upon, of physical touch. On reflection, I have come to realize that there is literally a dearth of museological information in (or rather for) one sense: textural knowledge.
A few weeks ago, the Museum’s Great Hall had been rented for a private event, as it often is. After the event—an awards ceremony—attendees began to drift throughout the Museum space and examine the various pieces. Many of them remained in the Great Hall, where annie ross’ Forest One, an art installation, was then on display. The work is a 1957 Nash Metropolitan automobile that has been appropriated by the artist and covered in a variety of found materials, including woven cedar bark, furs, ceramics, and various indigenous motifs. Suffice to say, the piece proves an ineluctable attraction to visitors, who are no doubt drawn to the piece by its sheer creative novelty and, perhaps, its relative incongruence with the more austere denizens of the Great Hall, the ever conspicuous totem poles. Given the fortuitous circumstances, our guests began to pose with Forest One for photographs: leaning on the hood, touching the roof, even reaching for the fur-lined steering wheel.
Of course, such practices contravene Museum policy. Our aghast events manager frequently had to remind guests to observe the Do Not Touch signs surrounding the vehicle (the warnings being the result of damage the work had received from enthusiastic visitors at a previous venue). These signs were, however, rather meekly placed on the floor of a room where most visitors spend their time gazing upward. Time and again, I watched as attendees mugged for the camera in front of the dainty china plates that have replaced the headlights, and I inwardly chided them: “Don’t you know what you’re doing? That is a work of art!”
The moment I had thought these words, I realized that my own conception of art as a valuable item indicative of prestige, fragility, and autonomy largely excluded the ethos of Forest One, if not a great deal of contemporary art in general. For though ross’ piece is a delightful visual spectacle, it is more than mere artifice. It is about the remediation of natural materials, derived from the ancestral territory of an indigenous culture, through the act of appropriation. In covering the Metropolitan (symbolic, perhaps, of American consumerist idealism in the mid-twentieth century, and its colonial avarices) with cedar bark, the traditional weaving material of the First Nations of the Northwest Coast, ross has imbued the vehicle with a new series of cultural constituents. A traditional cedar weaving, such as a blanket or garment, is largely handmade. Weavers must develop their skill through the direct manipulation of the material; in this way, they also develop an intuitive grasp of how the material handles. Thus, the cedar bark suggests something of a reality ulterior to the industrialized vicissitudes of modern society: a reality in which the means of subsistence, and the basis of our metaphysical worldview, is derived through a direct relationship with the natural environment rather than modes of economic behaviour. The car functions not only as a vehicle in the traditional sense, but as a vehicle for the transversal of a bridge between the land and the people for whom it is sacred. It seems almost counter-intuitive, then, to erect a barrier around Forest One—a barrier that undermines the physical connection that the piece endorses.
Several days later, another unusual experience led me to consider the material precedents of objects in museums. As a museum assistant, part of my job entails leading private groups on tours of MOA. As I was preparing for that day’s tour, I was surprised to learn that one of my group members was blind. I had had no experience taking a sight-impaired individual around the museum before, and although there are several pieces in the museum which visitors are permitted to touch, I soon realized that the bulk of any given visitor’s experience will predominantly stem from their visual faculties.
Over the course of the tour, I became progressively more aware of my visually oriented bias. I noted that nearly every point I made relied in some way on being able to see the objects on display. How does one describe a formline, or an ovoid, to someone who cannot comprehend shapes? How can one show that variations in paint use reflect the heterogeneity of First Nations groups, if you cannot appreciate colour? How can one justify Bill Reid’s decision to use yellow rather than red cedar for the carving of The Raven and the First Men, if you do not know the quality of luminescence? I could only make feeble descriptions of the form of the object; but, at the risk of alienating the bulk of the group whom could see the item at hand, these limited descriptions could not totally encapsulate the enormities of the item for this individual.
Thinking back to Forest One, I surmised once more that there is a disjuncture between the physical forms of the museum’s objects, and the ways in which they are manifested in the museum space. This is particularly salient for the objects pertaining to the peoples of the Northwest Coast, which, in their originating contexts, were not enshrined behind glass walls but usually located in spaces wherein others could freely interact with them. Even particularly special items, such as a copper (a shield-like, ancestral token of wealth), would serve as the basis for community galvanization on occasions—they were not distended from participatory acts. Certainly, objects like these are sacred, and require careful treatment in the museum space; indeed, all objects should be treated with respect. But to categorize an object in order to relegate it to a form of diminished spectacle can de-emphasize the significance it held for its originating community, while obviating the potential for further physical, spiritual, or other interactions.
Museum specialists the world over are fully aware of these issues. They are tasked with the difficulty of recognizing the non-material significance of an object—a significance that may be attenuated through the process of institutionalization—while simultaneously ensuring that the object does not fall into disrepair. Of course, on a purely pragmatic basis, it would be unwise to grant visitors free access to the museum’s collection. Yet I am left to speculate how much material knowledge is enshrouded on the surfaces of the objects themselves. I cannot help but feel that, had my visually impaired museum visitor had the chance, she would have been able to appreciate the richness of First Nations culture on a largely somatic level. Every shallow groove, or deep incision, speaks of the sculptor’s skill, style, even personality. Every thread within a blanket is a delicate constituent of the item; in their collective tension, they instantiate the fortitude of the weaving as a whole. Each crack, bruise, knot or tear evokes the imperfect nature of the object, contrived by human hands and tempered by exposure to the natural elements. Furthermore, the material subtleties of a given item may convey the cultural autonomy of a given society, or bespeak their correlation with others. Compare, for instance, the smoothness of a Musqueam house post with the sharpened forms of a Nuu-chah-nulth pole, or the rounded striations of a Kwakwaka’wakw feast dish: each texture is indicative of a unique heritage and way of being.
Granted, this sort of knowledge is not empirical in nature, and, for many visitors, might be intangible. But then we must subsequently ask for whom the knowledge commonly disseminated by museums is relevant: academic research institutions, originating communities, or the public at large? Though these groups are not mutually exclusive, the emphasis on technical or symbolic knowledge, rather than textural or somatic knowledge, largely corroborates the interests of the academic community, rather than those who endeavor to engage with objects on a personal or metaphysical level.