In the past museum have been the beacon of ‘no touching’. If you consider MC Hammer harsh in his touching policy I don’t advise you to go to any traditional museums any time soon.
From a museum perspective, the more something it handled the more wear it gains and the more degraded it becomes. A ‘no touching’ policy is considered a way of preserving things for the future generations. However, at the Oxford University Natural History Museum you are actively encouraged to touch large amounts of items on open display; rocks, fossils and more unusually taxidermy too. And why not, since physically touching an object gives an opportunity to engage with it on a level that just looking can never fulfil. You can explore the collection under the watchful eyes of statues of Natural History heros and articulated skeletons, all of which looks like they are going to start moving like in a Harry Potter book.
Touching is an important way for humans to gain information about objects. I’m not saying every object in a museum should be man handled by everyone. I definitely did not think that I would ever have the chance to stroke a real bear . . . and I’m pretty sure it would not have listed a museum as the first port of call to experience such a thing. But isn’t in wonderful that museums can still surprise in this way! On open display and with a ‘Please Touch’ label was a taxidermy bear, it was wonderful to see people’s reactions to this.
We are so used to the ‘no touching’ rule in museums that people would read the ‘Please Touch’ signs and still visibly need to double check the sign all the while, probably out of disbelief. This created the feeling of gaining an experience that you never even thought would be possible. While we admired the bear a small boy reached up to stroke his feet and happily informed up that last time he had stroked a deer, but that the bear was much bigger. It’s opportunities like this that really stick in children’s memories – a hands on way of engaging with a museum collection.
The light that spills though the glass panelled gothic ceiling on to the collection below is beautiful. Such bright light is pretty usual in a museum environment because UV light dramatically damages objects. In fact, the museum has recently been on the news because the newly restored roof does not incorporate any UV filtering, which has caused a dramatic increase in temperature and quickening deterioration of the collection. But don’t worry, they are on the case – putting in a planning application to allow UV film to be added to each of the glass ceiling tiles. A painstaking process I’m sure, but when it can block out 99% of those harmful rays, it’s worth it. Even though the film will result in giving the roof of the listed building a highly reflective gold colouring, Historic England have granted the planning permission – protecting the collection is that important.
The articulated skeletons on display were a personal favourite. By articulating bones instead of having them presented flatly laid out a better understanding of scale and structure can be gained subconsciously even by an untrained eye and the fact that skeletons are displayed alongside each other allows interesting comparisons to be made.
A favourite photo from this visit was one taken from the balcony featuring the replica t-rex skeleton. It rather looks like it has woken up and is off on a little adventure, striding through the museum space.