Handling Collection: Challenges

4 August 2015

In the previous articles on handling collections, Muriel Bailly has looked at the benefits of using touchable objects to enhance learning, as well as the different motivations and strategies for developing such collections. Once you’ve decided to provide hands-on experiences for your audience and have your objects ready, you’re good to go. Of course, that doesn’t mean it’ll be challenge-free.

Developing a handling collection is an exciting opportunity for museums and similar institutions to engage more deeply with their audiences, but it also brings a whole new set of challenges. Although Wellcome Collection had a handling collection pretty much since its opening in 2007 it was a little underused until a couple of years ago. The handling collection was reserved for specific outreach projects, school groups and partially sighted visitors, while our general public offer focussed on more traditional gallery tours.

 Chinese shoes for bound feet (Wellcome Collection).

Chinese shoes for bound feet (Wellcome Collection).

When our development project started in 2013, parts of our galleries were closed; we had to find new ways of engaging with the public. That’s when we metaphorically dusted off the handling collection and integrated hands-on “busking” into our permanent public offer.

Working with handling objects is hugely exciting, but also a bit frightening at first. When I first started using the handling objects regularly (and not just to focus the attention of an agitated school group) I found it difficult to find the right approach. Being very used to delivering guided tours, I had a natural tendency for a strong narrative. Since one of the advantages of handling objects is that visitors can interact with them directly, they don’t need as much interpretation from me. This was a feeling shared my colleagues across the Visitor Experience team:

“I found it initially very hard to deliver an engaging session, rather than a presentation.”
Elissavet Ntoulia, Visitor Experience Assistant, Wellcome Collection.

 The handling collection travelled to Camden as part of our Curious Journey (© Wellcome Collection).

The handling collection travelled to Camden as part of our Curious Journey (© Wellcome Collection).

As a team we felt that we needed more guidelines about how to successfully use touch objects for public engagement. We looked at how other museums were working with their handling collections, especially the Horniman Museum and Gardens which holds what is probably one of the oldest handling collections in the country.

“The Horniman Museum and Gardens have had had a handling collection of sorts since Frederick Horniman opened his collection to the public in 1890. One of the earliest recorded instances of object handling connected to the Horniman comes from 24 February 1897 when a professor from the British Museum and an authority on mummies gave a lecture to the Dulwich Scientific and Literary Association. The professor and the Horniman’s then curator unwrapped the mummy during the lecture, leading to much new information about mummification being discovered. It is also reported that Mr Horniman gave away samples of the mummy cloth to participants!”
Julia Cort, Community Learning Manager, Horniman Museum and Gardens.

Things have changed a lot since then, but that shows the incredibly long and rich history of the Hornima’s handling collection. The museum has over 3,500 objects in their handling collection which are displayed in the Hands on Base Gallery which opened in 2002.

“We follow much stricter procedures than Frederick Horniman for taking objects from our Handling Collection offsite and even stricter procedures for disposing of them!”
Julia Cort, Community Learning Manager, Horniman Museum and Gardens.

 Family Learning Activities using handling objects at the Horniman Museum and Gardens (© Megan Taylor).

Family Learning Activities using handling objects at the Horniman Museum and Gardens (© Megan Taylor).

With practice and knowledge shared across institutions, the Wellcome team became increasingly aware of the endless possibilities offered by handling collections. You can create new narratives by linking different objects together, which would be impossible in gallery tours because of the objects being located in different galleries, for example. But I think that the biggest, and nicest, surprise was the level of visitors’ engagement.

Handling sessions are characterised by smaller groups than those attending traditional gallery tours. The intimacy of the session and the public’s direct experience with the object (or the related topic) means that visitors share a lot more of their personal stories. The session becomes a conversation where the staff delivering the session learn from the participants as much as the other way around.

“One of the main rewards is getting visitors to share their experiences of how a certain subject has affected them. When delivering the fingerprinting hands-on session (supporting our Forensics: the anatomy of crime exhibition) we had visitors from the Met police (professionals) and visitors who had experienced being part of a criminal investigation (witnesses) in the room. The chance to hear real stories from both sides is one of the best opportunities you can have in public engagement!”
Sarah Mason, Visitor Experience Assistant, Wellcome Collection.

“I decided to do a tour of the Institute of Sexology with handling objects. I used the anti-masturbation device, the phallic amulet, the orgone box displayed in the gallery (considering it as an object to experience) and the antique and new vibrators. I used a wheeled trolley to place the objects and walk them through the gallery. Although the group needed to be smaller than for a normal tour, I found there were better discussions because of the objects. When people physically felt the object and their weight and movement (in some cases), they could more easily discuss the topics related to sexology. I find on tours without objects people can be quite shy and don’t want to ask questions or discuss topics, but the objects gave people a more specific starting point for talking about the exhibition.”
Sarah Jaffray, Visitor Experience Assistant, Wellcome Collection.

Because the engagement is punctuated by visitors’ personal stories, the possibilities are endless, as well as unpredictable. No two sessions are the same. You need to be ready to hear what people have to say, and sometimes it can be very emotional:

“Once, talking about the mourning hair brooch and the idea of remembering dead loved ones prompted a lady to share her experience of mourning her partner.”
Elissavet Ntoulia, Visitor Experience Assistant, Wellcome Collection.

 Visitor Experience Assistant Sarah mason delivering and handling session at Wellcome Collection.

Visitor Experience Assistant Sarah Mason delivering and handling session at Wellcome Collection.

The other key challenge in working with handling objects is not content or style related, but about the objects’ safety. Threats to the collection come not only from being handled by members of the public, but also where and how the collection is stored.

Looking after a handling collection is just as much work as looking after any museum collection. Any changes in the collection’s condition needs to be addressed and appropriately documented. This can be very demanding on staff, especially when a handling collection is often an “on the side” or “in addition” responsibility.

“An on-going challenge is regular maintenance of the collection. We want the handling collection to be used by as many visitors as possible, but with this comes the risk of breakage and the need to repair often old and fragile objects.”
Janice Welch, Senior Learning and Engagement Officer, Geffrye Museum.

“For us, because we are a small staff team, the challenge is always looking after the handling collection, keeping the items tidy, cataloguing them, keeping track of where they are. Another challenge can also be making sure that they are handled properly by the audience.”
Sally Sculthorpe, Learning Officer, British Postal Museum and Archive.

To ensure the safety of the collection, and its accurate documentation, many museums provide specific training for their staff, ranging from object handling to museum database training. The scope and scale of the training can vary from museum to museum, often due to staff and budget availability.

“Using non-accessioned objects taken from the Thames means, to some extent, that the threat of damage or loss is mitigated and can be accepted as a risk. The objects used are often very easily replaceable. Their storage and care is looked after by trained members of the Visitor Services team who undertake regular inventories and spot checks as well as cleaning. Theft and loss are prevented by training all staff on handling procedures and by only getting small portions of the collection out at each time.”
Nicola Fyfe and Edwin Wood, Visitor Hosts, Museum of London.

 The handling collection being used for the ‘Pop Up Field Post Office’ at the British Postal Museum and Archive.

The handling collection being used for the ‘Pop Up Field Post Office’ at the British Postal Museum and Archive.

“We have a team of four Volunteering Coordinators who manage our many volunteering programmes including the Hands On desks, and enable the museum to have such a large handling programme. This team is responsible for everything from volunteer training and recruitment to overseeing the care of the objects and putting together new handling collections. The team is responsible for the day-to-day management of the Hands On programme (but not other handling collections that are used in the museum). Volunteers are provided with extensive training on correct object handling procedures and Conservation staff perform regular checks to make sure the objects are in good condition.’”
Charlotte Milligan, Volunteering Coordinator, British Museum.

Looking after handling objects (either by volunteers or front of house staff) is a wonderful opportunity to learn more about collection management and work closely with the larger museum team. Curators can offer insight on objects’ interpretation and recommend further reading; conservators can help looking after the objects, monitoring their condition and conducting repairs and when necessary.

As one of the people responsible for looking after the handling collection at Wellcome, I have witnessed this recently. One of our most popular handling objects, a prosthetic toe (originally acquired to support our Superhuman exhibition) suffered some damage. The silicone toe became detached from its plaster mount rendering the objects unusable for public engagement.

 Repair being carried out on the prosthetic toe, part of Wellcome’s handling collection (© Wellcome Collection.

Repair being carried out on the prosthetic toe, part of Wellcome’s handling collection (© Wellcome Collection).

The Visitor Experience team asked the help of the conservators. Stefania Signorello, Conservator at Wellcome Collection, contacted her colleagues at the Science Museum (who also look after Henry Wellcome’s collection, part of which is displayed in their Science and Art of Medicine galleries) taking the collaboration to the even wider team. Following Louise Stewart’s advice, the conservation part could finally take place. I was lucky enough to be allowed to carry out the work under Stefania’s close supervision, making the object fit for purpose again.

Working with handling objects is time consuming, and sometimes stressful, but the many rewards easily outweigh the constraints. The depth of the engagement with the public is significantly increased, the stories shared between the audience and members of staff create for endless archives of information. Staff can develop a real understanding and passion for collection management and get to develop closer working relationships with their colleagues as well as learning practical skills. Internally and externally, handling collections bring people closer and make the museum experience even more meaningful.

Muriel is a Visitor Experience Assistant at Wellcome Collection.