Science and Heritage Programme

Touching the Past:  Investigating Sensory Engagement and Authenticity in the Provision of Touch Experiences in Museums Across a Range of Media

University of Exeter

Award Holder - Dr Linda Hurcombe


Touching the Past:  Investigating Sensory Engagement and Authenticity in the Provision of Touch Experiences in Museums Across a Range of Media

The overarching aim is to investigate reactions to a variety of different kinds of 'touch experiences' within a museum setting. 

Central objectives

1. to extend and enhance sensory engagement within a museum using touch experiences

2. to extend and enhance the touch experience by building and retaining perceptions of authenticity   

The modern audience is shifting its expectations from passive viewer to active participant and the project will offer ways of adapting to this change using traditional and digital technologies to connect past and present and overcome the emotional and physical distance between ancient objects and their modern audience. Authenticity in the experience is crucial because the visitor comes to the museum to engage with the objects in the collections. 

Specific objectives

3. To focus on touch experiences which offer tactile engagement with the feel and behaviour of an artefact surface.  Branches of haptics offer touch commands or the chance to manipulate virtual 3D images but this project will focus on the tactile qualities of the ancient objects as they are now and as they would have been when first made.   

4. To work across a range of real artefacts to demonstrate the potential for different ways of interacting with objects of different materials and with different fragility. The project will work with real artefacts in a museum setting ranging from iconic objects such as the Lewis chess figures and 'walk-past' fragile textile remains housed in low lighting.  

5. To work across traditional and digital 'tactile experiences' so that their relative advantages for a range of objects in different settings can be appreciated. Traditional replicas often require rare craft skills and can be both an expensive solution and one which creates an item which still needs to be curated. Digital solutions such as laser scans and 3D printing allow faithful copying of the ancient object but will often be produced in the wrong material.  Comparing and contrasting the way the visitor values these experiences used alone or in some combination will offer curators and exhibition planners clear ideas on how to effectively integrate touch experiences.  

6. To test these ideas about the value of 'touch experiences' in a public context by constructing installations for preliminary trials and a final 'Please Touch' public event hosted by National Museums Scotland (NMS) and to document the installations in short explanatory videoclips. The installations produced by the cluster at a final short public event firmly identified the need to link ancient object and modern 'touch experience' sometimes by using a theatrical lighting trick to superimpose the viewer's body over an object inside a case.  These seemed to let the 'touch experience' borrow authenticity from the original object. A proper test of the ideas is necessary in order to inform the decisions of curators and exhibition planners. The trials will be at NMS and Kirkwall, Orkney.  

7. Use the public event to help disseminate the research to a professional audience A range of professionals from the UK and abroad will be invited to see the installations offer comments and to help disseminate the results.  

8. Take part in the final 'Science and Heritage' event in London Showcase the project's contribution to the overall aims of the Science and Heritage programme by providing demonstrator models and overviews of the work of the project as part of dissemination activities. 

9. Provide a website to aid in dissemination Finalise the website linking to videoclips showing how the installations worked and their key features. 

10. Write a peer reviewed multi-author article The article will assess the issues of sensory engagement and authenticity in museum touch experiences. 

11. Produce a final project report. The overarching aim is to investigate reactions to a variety of different kinds of 'touch experiences' within a museum setting. 


Museum professionals
The range of 'touch experience' installations will offer a variety of ways of engaging with different audiences and deploy modern and traditional methods. Most importantly, these will have been assessed so that museum professionals can make reasoned choices in planning and executing exhibitions which provide sensory engagement with ancient and fragile remains. The network cluster and the more recent REACT-HEIF award have both involved a variety of end-users. The network members set the agenda as keeping the focus on the ancient object with the technology in the background. It was this input that led to the juxtapositioning and superimposing of real object and 'tactile experience' which is a focus of the present trial. Our project partner, National Museums Scotland, is in the midst of major rennovation and redisplay. They already have a relationship with a commercial company, 'Relicarte', and the National Conservation Centre. Thus we know that with established and continuing close collaboration the results of a public trial will be seen as useful to museum professionals and serve their agendas. The public event will be both a way of gathering research data and also an excellent method of dissemination and impact. The membership of the advisory and dissemination panel has been chosen to help with impact on the future takeup of the ideas generated by the project (see below).

Museum visitors will be the prime beneficiaries of this research.
Direct contact with visitors: Museums visitors who participate in the trials and see the installations will have an enhanced museum visit where they will see research in practice. Previous comments show that this is valued so the 'dialogue with science' element of the visitor experience will be made clear as part of published information for visitors and those taking part in the trials. The visit will also be enhanced by the sensory engagement with the touch experiences and whilst individuals may be comparing and assessing the installations it is expected that their overall experience will have been enhanced by touch experiences. The development of strong linkage between the touch experience and the ancient artefacts will allow the experience to have a measure of authenticity and thus enhance the visitor experience.
Range of visitor groups: individuals, families, schools, special needs (especially visually impaired). All of these visitors will interact with the touch experiences in some way. We are especially keen to contribute ideas for ways to improve access to visually impaired people. Coming after the paralympics, there is a mood to challenge accepted norms of provision and we would like this project to contribute to this shift in perception. 

Future visitors: the overall outcome of the project is to see the ideas tested here ultimately put into practice in current and future exhibitions. This is why we have asked a key set of people from the UK mainland, Scottish islands, and Europe to join the 'advisory and dissemination panel'. Most are specifically involved in planning new displays for which they already have funding, or are in the midst of developing new initiatives or have ways of combining traditional displays with replicas because of their links across traditional museums and open air museums. They will engage with the project at planning stage and see the ideas in action as well as having access to the results.The project will be able to inform their future plans and impact on the future museum visitor. We see this set of people as 'agents for change'. They will have their own experiences of the installations which will be backed up by the published peer review article and by the website. The latter will have videoclips available so that others may see the installations in action.

The article and website will disseminate the research to the wider user group with the panel members acting as catalysts.