Haptic Interaction with Museum Objects


A review of Haptic Interaction with Visual Information: Tactile Exhibition as Inclusive Interface between Museum Visitors and the Bronze Bust of Sophocles, by Isil Onol.

In the introductory chapter, Isil Onol outlines the principal aims and objectives of her thesis, including her main research project which looks at the development of artistic works and art exhibition (“Tactual Explorations”), based on the tactile qualities of a museum object.  Art works were specifically developed to engage participants with haptic sensory information, the aim being to include individuals who are blind, partially sighted, as well as other museum visitors, in addition to addressing issues surrounding the “do not touch” ethos predominating museum culture.

The second chapter takes the form of a literature review, starting with a wide-ranging survey of touch from a variety of perspectives, including art criticism, philosophy and psychology.  Having provided a background for why touch is important, Isil goes onto a consideration of the tensions between inclusive design and the “do not touch” policy in museums.  Having considered current museum access trends for individuals who are blind or partially sighted, there follows an overview of various haptic/sensory interactive devices and augmented reality (both of which may assist in facilitating access to museum objects).  Therefore, the chapter provides an interdisciplinary context of the issues, namely, the importance of tactile experiences in a museum/gallery to enable access to objects for all visitors.

The third chapter outlines the methodologies adopted, namely the creative practice research methodology; with a focus upon performative and qualitative methods.  The former is an alternative methodology to qualitative or quantitative methodologies and involves, as the name suggests, the individual’s artistic practice as part of the research.  Isil undertook a number of roles, including curator of an exhibition, art maker, and workshop facilitator.  She also used a variety of methods to document the research process including observations, photographs, video, questionnaires, and the writing of the thesis itself.

The following chapter focuses upon the main practical element of the thesis, namely the art exhibition “Tactual Explorations” at the Northlight Gallery in Huddersfield: an exhibition of art works based upon the tactile qualities of the sculptural bronze bust of Sophocles, housed at the British Museum.  A replica of the latter was displayed in a glass case at the exhibition, whilst all the other art works could be interacted with by touch.  The processes of setting up the exhibition are outlined in detail (e.g. the scanning to create a three dimensional representation of a replica of the sculpture).  Ten artists (13 artworks) featured in the exhibition, including: “Takes a lot of licking” by Murat Ozkasim, which comprised chocolate lolly replicas of the sculpture; and “Haptic Bust of Sophocles” created by Isil herself – a representation of the sculpture both on a computer screen and through a pen-like vibrating device.  Accompanying these art works were a series of workshops focusing on tactile activities.  The thesis outlines the creative process behind the artworks, the artists’ intent, images of the art works, exhibition set-up, the different workshops, as well as Isil’s interpretation of visitor responses.  The research confirmed her proposal that haptic interpretation of the texture of an original museum object facilitates an enhanced visitor experience.  In addition, the interactive haptic element, with a computer interface (“Haptic Bust of Sophocles”) integrated well with the other art works.

Chapter six outlines three smaller research projects.  The first (carried out prior to the art exhibition described in the previous chapter) focused on the engagement of individuals viewing a particular sculpture that could not be touched.  Two further artefacts (one of which was identical to the one they could observe) were made available in a bag that they could only explore through touch.  The results were interpreted as showing that touch enhanced learning and provoked emotional engagement on interaction with the viewed object.  The second project was in two parts.  The first involved evaluating four visits by blind or partially sighted individuals to the original Sophocles bust at the British Museum.  A very interesting finding from this was that to a guide-dog and cane user, a plinth is perceived as an obstacle and it is not clear to the visually impaired visitor that there is, in fact, a displayed object upon it.  The second part of this project also involved individuals encountering a replica of the bust.  Isil makes the point that replicas are made predominantly for sighted people and that the material from which the replica (or original object) is made provides very important ‘touch’ information.  The third project considered whether photographs (which are often assumed to be equivalent to viewing the real object) can facilitate haptic vision.  This involved selecting a group of photographs and eliciting a number of written responses to them, with a particular focus on their haptic qualities.

Chapter 7 provides a short link between the main body of the thesis and the conclusion.  Of particular interest is the discussion about the use of replicas (commonly used in museums to provide access) and how their limitations may be overcome by creating art objects specifically based upon the original objects’ tactile qualities, as these works are inclusive for all.

In the concluding chapter, there is a summary of the key findings and a discussion of how the thesis relates to prior research and art projects.  The novel aspects of the research are highlighted, namely, the investigation into how art works based upon the tactile properties of an original museum object facilitate accessibility (rather than debating the ‘do not touch’ policy or the imitations of replicas).  Future research directions are also considered, along with the potential of having the thesis converted into braille/audio book, the photographs and essays from the third project (Chapter 6) converted into a book, and a consideration of how the research upon which the thesis is based could be applied to other museum objects (e.g. those of a smaller size).

Helen Saunderson
Independent Scholar

Primary Sources

Derrida, J. On Touching  (Stanford University Press, 2000 [2005])
Haseman, B. ‘A manifesto for performative research’, Media International Australia (2006)
Foucault, M. ‘What is an author?’, in Hanari, J.V.E. (ed.), Textual Strategies (Cornell University Press, 1979)
Marks, L.U., The Quays’ Institute Benjamenta: an olfactory view (Afterimage, 1997)
Candlin, F.  ‘Museums, modernity and the class politics of touching objects’, in Chatterjee, H. (ed.), Touch in Museums (Berg, 2007)

Dissertation Information

University of Huddersfield, UK. 2011. 300 pp. Primary Advisor: Steve Swindells.

Image: Isil Onol’s exhibition work ‘Haptic Bust of Sophocles’. With permission of author.

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