From the time when we’re babies old enough to understand the word “No” we’re made to keep our hands off the things that are most alluring to us. But what happens when we grow up and the compulsion is still there?
I have a small problem when I go to museums or to fragile sites in nature where you are explicitly told not to touch things. The problem is this — the things you are told not to touch are frequently things that you want to touch more than anything you’ve seen before. These untouchable items have strange textures, alluring patterns, and alien forms that I am desperate to feel because I assume they will afford a brand new tactile experience that I may never get a chance to repeat.
For instance, about five years ago I was in the British Museum in London and there was an ancient Egypt exhibit containing a huge sarcophagus roped off with velvet. You could walk right up to this artifact and there was really nothing keeping you from reaching out and touching the ancient stone, feeling the cold smooth surface of a mummy’s grave. Yeah, there was a rope. But if they really didn’t want you to touch it, wouldn’t they put the thing somewhere safer? Like behind glass?
I stood there for awhile fighting my desire to leave my fingerprints all over the sarcophagus. My boyfriend at the time was morally opposed to touching it. He was a philosopher, so it figures. Philosophers tend to be busy touching things with their minds so maybe they’re not so attracted to the physical world. I stood there feeling anxious and suddenly a small child came darting out of a group of small children and placed his entire palm on the sarcophagus in front of me. No one saw him. No one said anything. So very quickly I reached out and stroked the rock surface. I got chills. It was like touching the past. No one saw me. No one said anything, and I went about my day feeling very pleased with myself.
This happened again recently on a trip to Italy where I went to the Frasassi Caves with my new husband as we travelled around on our honeymoon. The Caves were the most spectacular natural wonder I have ever seen. There were stalagmites 20 meters tall and the entire cave system was like something out of a sci-fi movie. The damp air clung to my clothes and the slick surface of the stalagmites reflected the dim spot lights. They looked like icicles, but I knew that they were made up of calcium carbonate deposits that grow at an astounding rate of 1 mm/year.
The caves were ancient, beautiful, and alluring. I soon found myself fighting an urge to touch a stalagmite. When would I ever have the chance again? I was desperate to know what the surface would feel like. Would it be smooth? Would it be cold? Would it be wet? Would it leave a salty film on my hands? My husband was morally opposed to me touching one. He’s an engineer so it figures. He was more concerned with the structural integrity of the stalagmites and the need to preserve them for future generations than he was in satisfying intense curiosity.
It seems that other people on the tour shared my desperate desire to touch them because a middle-aged man walking ahead of me surreptitiously stuck out a hand and brushed it against a stalagmite, making it look as if it could have been accidental. But I knew it wasn’t. Encouraged, I stuck out my own hand quickly when no one was looking and put three fingers on a stalagmite that was right on the edge of our designated walking path. It was electric! The formation was cool and slightly wet. It felt like ice without the penetrating cold. It was like a rock that was partly alive. I don’t regret touching it.
The world is full of tactile experiences, and people explore their surroundings through touch. It’s natural to want to touch things and I feel that depriving people of such experiences in museums takes away from the enjoyment. I understand that ancient things need to be preserved and that if everyone touched them they would eventually wear away. But there are solutions. The British Museum could make exact replicas of a few sarcophagi for people to touch. The Frasassi Caves could designate one small stalagmite for people to touch upon entry to the caves. I’m not sorry for touching the sarcophagus or the stalagmite. I now know what it feels like to brush the surface of an ancient tomb and feel the silky cold of a cave’s interior. I wish that opportunities like these could be made more available so I wouldn’t have to sneak around like a thief in the night to experience them.
Please check out this video of the Frasassi Caves…
“Touch it” Tavallai @ Flickr.com. Creative Commons. Some Rights Reserved.
“Frasassi Caves” La Ciminiera Country House
“Sarcophagus of Hapmen” British Museum, PicassaWeb
Tactile, touch, museums, nature, Frasassi Caves, British Museum