Team Members

Principal Investigator
Constance Classen, Loyola International College, Concordia University

David Howes, Sociology and Anthropology, Concordia University

Project Summary

In the early museums of the eighteenth century, visitors often handled the artefacts on display. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, such tactile practices were no longer allowed within public museums. Thus, in 1844 the art writer Anna Jameson observed that, while people now behaved themselves within collection settings, everyone could remember the days when gallery-goers strutted about "touching the ornaments - and even the pictures!" (Jameson, 1844: 34-35).

The first component of the present research program will examine the crucial period of transition in the sensory life of the museum when exhibits went from being "hands-on" to being "hands-off". This transition period encompassed the first half of the nineteenth century. Key issues to be explored include the extent to which practical factors, such as increases in visitor numbers, influenced this shift, and the extent to which it was affected by cultural factors, such as a decline in the perceived value of touch as a means of appreciating collections, or the use of museums as sites for instructing the public in new social norms of decorous and disciplined behaviour. The institutions which provide the main research focus of this part of the research program are the Ashmolean Museum in Oxford, the British Museum in London, the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, and the Louvre in Paris. All of these museums have early origins, functioned during the critical period of transition, and remain open today.

The second part of the project consists of an anthropological investigation of the re-entry of touch into the contemporary museum. In recent years a number of mainstream museums have tried to engage the sense of touch through interactive events, touch screens and handling sessions. This development provides a vital opportunity for first-hand observation of a historically significant shift within museum practices in the present day. Issues to be considered here include the nature of the tactile activities provided, the target groups, the factors influencing the development of the new hands-on museum and visitor responses. The primary museums to be studied are the British Museum and the Horniman Museum in London, the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow, the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, the Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto and the Musée de la Civilisation in Quebec. All of these museums combine historical and ethnographic collections with interactive programs engaging the sense of touch.

This groundbreaking research program will both provide essential information about crucial periods of transition in the social and sensory history of the museum and contribute to the emergent fields of the History and the Anthropology of the Senses. The research will be of value to historians and social scientists as well as to curators and educators working at museums, and designers interested in modes of collection display and in the role of touch in design. More generally, it can contribute to the enhancement of the public's experience of museum environments by providing essential background information to display practices and by encouraging the creation of exhibits which engage the senses in meaningful ways.


The Hands-On Museum project is funded by a generous grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada.