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Conservation Notes: Why we don't touch the art

sculpture Large Two Forms

Henry Moore’s sculpture Large Two Forms, located outside the AGO, is constantly touched, sat upon and even played on. This has caused localized polishing, loss of the original artist’s surface treatment (patina) and exposure of the underlying weld lines—all of which are clearly evident in this photograph.

During almost every visit to an art gallery with kids—or kids at heart—someone will utter the words "don't touch!" As gallery-goers get more experienced and hear that phrase again and again, the instinct to reach out and feel a work of art fades or even disappears. Even when visitors are allowed to touch certain artworks and are encouraged to do so, as in our current exhibition Michael Snow: Objects of Vision, many hesitate.

So most of us know that touching the art is usually not okay, but do we really know why? The reasons, it turns out, are many. Below, see notes from the AGO's Deputy Director of Collections Management and Conservation, Margaret Haupt, on why a "hands off" approach is so important to the preservation of many works of art.

  • Touching a work of art makes it dirty—significantly dirty—and with surprisingly little handling.
  • The sticky, greasy accumulation attracts dirt and quickly becomes dark.
  • Finger soiling will also cause chemical and physical changes in the surface that has been touched. For example, the varnish on paintings will become cloudy and acid from the hands can accelerate the corrosion of metals, even etching fingerprints into the carefully created surface finish (patina) on a sculpture.
  • Heat from the hands can damage the gilding on some frames.
  • Touching will cause localized polishing of the touched surfaces, spoiling the finish that the artist created—even spoiling the overall aesthetic effect intended by the artist. Consider the bright toe of the sculpture of Timothy Eaton at the Eaton Centre—or the gleaming nose of a bronze portrait.
  • The typical fingerprint is made up of oils, dirt, skin cells and other debris that is deposited when someone touches a surface.
  • Touching is also associated with accidental damages such as scratching and breakage.
  • All of these damages create permanent changes in the work of art. It is possible that the work may be cleaned and/or repaired, but it is also a fact that the object will never be the same again.
  • We don’t always know from looking at a three-dimensional object how it has been constructed, how structurally stable it is or whether its centre of gravity is actually where we would expect it to be. The AGO works hard to protect the visitor from health and safety risks associated with displayed art works, but the visitor is generally safer not touching the artwork.
  • Staff take care to wash their hands thoroughly before touching any collection item. Where gloves are more appropriate than handling a work with bare hands, the gloves are selected to be safe for that particular object. Gloves used at the AGO are typically made of nitrile or white cotton.

And now you know!

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