For science’s sake, touch the art

Visitors to a new exhibition get to break the cardinal rule of museum-going: Please don’t touch.

A curator and a scientist—both exploring the question of what feels beautiful—want art lovers to hold and touch some of the pieces in the exhibit Touch and the Enjoyment of Sculpture: Exploring the Appeal of Renaissance Statuettes.

The show, on view at the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore, Maryland, is the fourth in a series of collaborations between the Walters and the Brain Science Institute at Johns Hopkins University.

“We’re challenging people to think about why physical contact with works of art can be so satisfying,” says neuroscientist Steven Hsiao, whose work includes exploring many aspects of humans’ sense of touch.

“In fact, as people browse the exhibition, we will be asking them to react to what they are seeing and feeling.”

The show incorporates a dozen 16th-century statuettes from the Walters collection—kept safely behind glass and out of reach—along with 22 replica pieces that visitors will touch and rate, providing data for ongoing research.

The project melds the research interests of Hsiao and those of Joaneath Spicer, the Walters’ curator of Renaissance and Baroque art, who studies the Renaissance penchant for collecting and commissioning small statuettes and other luxury goods that were satisfying to touch and handle.

The special appeal of the exhibition lies in the opportunity for visitors to participate in comparative experiments with the replica artworks, fashioned exclusively for the show.

“We’ll be asking visitors to handle them and to tell us what sculptures they prefer and to rate how they like sculptures that have been modified in their shape and texture,” Hsiao says. “This exhibition allows us to dissect why some objects feel better than others.”

Visitors will register these preferences, and other reactions, on tablet computers; they will be able to see a dynamic display tabulating their responses.

The data will be used in Hsaio’s and Spicer’s research on tactile aesthetics.

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