Look, Don’t Touch

Look, don’t touch. This was a concept that gave me quite a bit of trouble as a child visiting museums. From carved marble resembling fabric to the brushstrokes of Impressionist paintings, everything begged to be examined with more than just my eyes.

It gets harder to follow the mantra of look, don’t touch at historic homes such as the Bartow-Pell Mansion Museum. Each object on display was designed to be touched, held, sat on, eaten off of, played with, lit, and blown out. Arranged in each room of the house, the objects hold the memory of having just been touched and together give off an expectant air as if a person from long ago has just stepped out of the room for a moment. As visitors, this ambiance allows us to suspend time for a moment and immerse ourselves in the history of the place. The objects take on life, telling the story in place of those who lived here so long ago.

We feel the pull to allow ourselves to reach out and touch and complete the process of immersion, and yet we stop and pull our hand back. These objects also have a life as a numbered, labeled part of a collection. Sorted in our database by their accession number, each has its own associated set of data. In this capacity, the objects remind us that what they can tell us is equally as important as what they evoke.

BPMM intern Julia Rogers works with collection photos on Past Perfect software

As an intern, I am currently working on a project that will expand our objects’ ability to tell us about their history. Using Past Perfect software, Bartow-Pell has created a database with records on every acquisition. Recently, another intern began the project of photo-documenting each object. I am continuing the work by taking the completed photographs and pairing them with their catalog entries in Past Perfect.  More than just a glamour shot, each object has multiple views showing it photographed near a yardstick with additional close-up shots of important details.  By adding the pictures, we are letting the object serve as data in the system.

The furniture, lamps, statues, plates, paintings, and toys here at Bartow-Pell each live simultaneously as objects in a home and artifacts of history. Collectively, they help us to understand our past, whether through their ability to document the ways and means of everyday activity or through their ability to evoke a memory of a past that was gone before we were ever alive.

Julia Rogers, Museum Intern

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