Handling Collection: Origin

3 July 2015

Some handling collections use genuine artefacts, while others use replicas. Does this affect the visitor experience? And how do you put such a collection together? Muriel Bailly continues this series about museum handling collections by looking at their origins.

The public museum is a product of the 18th century, with major public institutions such as the Musée du Louvre and the British Museum both opening then (1792 and 1753 respectively). In the 19th century, a primary function of museums was to demonstrate the wealth and power of their governments. The Louvre’s collection, for example, displayed the booty of the Napoleonic conquests. Museums had an educational role, but instead of inviting learners to draw their own conclusion, the message was more than implied through collections and displays.

In the 20th century, museums emancipated themselves from their governments’ agendas; they were able to decide on the messages they wanted to convey to their audience, as well as how to do so. That’s quite a decision to make! It is no surprise, then, that this time coincides with a flourishing of museum education theories. As George H Hein puts it in his 1998 publication Learning in the Museum: “understanding visitors’ learning has become a matter of survival for museums”.

Two main schools of thought have emerged: one that claims learning (the real world) exists outside of the learners. This view is called “realism” and Plato is probably the best advocate for this theory with his famous Allegory of the Cave. In this theory, people absorb information bit by bit as it is transmitted to them.

The second main theory of learning, which is called “idealism”, considers that knowledge already exists in the mind of the learners. In this theory, people construct knowledge by playing an active role in the learning process. This theory is characterised by active and experiential learning (hands-on).

 Visitor Hosts using the handling collection for public engagement at the Museum of London.
[object Object]

Nicola Fyfe and Edwin Wood (Visitor Hosts) using the handling collection for public engagement at the Museum of London.

Using handling collections in museums is an ideal way to create this hands-on, active learning opportunity for visitors and this has encouraged museums all over the world to develop their own handling collections for public engagement. Just like with exhibitions and displays, there is no magic formula for a successful handling collection. Each museum has its own way of building and working with handling collections which will match the museum’s identity and its audience’s needs.

There is no right or wrong way of using a handling collection, in my opinion, but it is important to remember what you want to achieve with your collection ; this will differ from one museum to another.

At the Museum of London, the Visitor Services handling collection allows the Hosts to build excellence in public engagement:

“We felt that Object Handling was a valuable tool in both engaging the visitors to the museum and aiding their learning. Past experience had demonstrated the value of Object Handling and we wanted to establish a more frequent activity built around it.”
Nicola and Edwin, Visitor Hosts, Museum of London.

As I mentioned in the first post of this series, the standard museum practice of placing objects, which were originally designed to be used, behind glass is somewhat nonsensical. A handling collection is a way to bring the objects closer to their original context, like at the British Museum:

“Our Hands On programme has been running since 2001. It was set up to enrich our visitor experience as we believe that tactile experience can be a uniquely effective way of engaging visitors. Many of the objects in the Museum’s collection were made to be touched and handled. Coins, for example, are obviously meant to be passed from hand to hand.”
Charlotte Milligan, Volunteering Coordinator,British Museum.

 Volunteer running a Hands On desk at the British Museum. (©Benedict Johnson/British Museum)
[object Object]

Volunteer running a Hands On desk at the British Museum. (© Benedict Johnson/British Museum)

Handling collections are also excellent tools to reach specific audiences:

“The initial purpose of the handling collection project was to facilitate access to the collection for children with Special Education Needs (SEN). However, the project evolved to encompass other audiences and we hoped that all children, young people and adults visiting the gallery for educational visits would benefit from the first hand encounter with objects. It is an aspiration that the Geffrye handling collection enhances learning and enjoyment in the gallery, supports a variety of learning styles and potentially fosters a lifetime’s enjoyment of museums and galleries.”
Janice Welch, Senior Learning and Engagement Officer, Geffrye Museum.

Wellcome Collection has a diverse handling collection, which the Visitor Experience team has been in charge of developing and looking after through a series of projects. Initially, the objects acquired were linked to the permanent galleries, Medicine Man and Medicine Now, offering staff the possibility to expand the dialogue behind the objects on display.

 Cup, part of the Geffrye Museum’s handling collection. (©Geffrye Museum of the Home)
[object Object]

Cup, part of the Geffrye Museum’s handling collection. (©Geffrye Museum of the Home)

Based on the success of the handling collection, in 2012 it was expanded to encompass objects which would support the temporary exhibition Superhuman. By that point the handling collection comprised over 20 objects relating to the history of medicine and exploring what it is to be human.

Until 2013, the handling collection was mostly used to reach specific audiences such as schools groups and visitors with visual impairments. Visitor Experience staff at Wellcome Collection have been trained to deliver Audio Described tours and handling sessions, providing an incredible opportunity for visitors who would not otherwise access our collection.

However, during our recent development project, part of our galleries closed, encouraging us to incorporate the handling collection as part of our standard public offer. I will explore the various ways we achieved this in later posts.

Once you know which audience you want to reach with the handling collection (and how), “all” you need to do is develop the collection! Again, there are conflicting views on how to do this. Some (museum staff and visitors included) swear by genuine artefacts, while others are happy to use replicas.

It can be very difficult to have a handling collection composed only of “real” or permanent objects from the collection. Even if there are such eligible objects, this often results in complicated administration for the museum in order to use accessioned objects for hands-on purposes. Replicas are often favoured for these and other reasons. Unfortunately, there is an ongoing perception that replicas are less valuable; this goes beyond the museum world as the recent criticism against the replica of the Chauvet cave (France) in the press shows.

 School group using the British Postal Museum and Archive handling collection. (©The British Postal Museum & Archive)
[object Object]

School group using the British Postal Museum and Archive handling collection. (©The British Postal Museum & Archive)

The question about the significance of using “real” objects versus replicas in museums is often raised. Clearly, there is a wow factor and an emotional effect with genuine objects, but this does not mean touching replicas cannot feel special. I have seen amazing public engagement being made with replicas and contemporary objects. It is essentially a matter of personal preference, I think. The reality, from a museum point of view, is that museums have to work with what they have and if they don’t have original objects, they have to be resourceful. A good example is the Visitor Services’ handling collection at the Museum of London:

“Objects were selected from a collection created by the Visitor Services team obtained from several mudlarking trips to the Thames foreshore. This ensured visitors could engage with real artefacts without the risk to accessioned collection. It also provided a chance to put the objects in geographical context. And we had great fun bringing the exhibition together!”
Edwin and Nicola, Visitor Hosts, Museum of London.

Most museums would have a handling collection made of a mixture of genuine, accessioned objects and replicas bought especially for the collection:

“Most items are duplicate or disposals from the British Postal Museum and Archive collection. However, some items, including a large amount of replica uniform had been specifically bought for the handling collection in previous funded projects. Recently, new objects have been purchased for the collection in response to the development of the learning programme. For instance, through the Heritage Lottery Fund First World War: Then and Now Fund we recently bought a First World War field telephone to support the activities we deliver.”
Sally Sculthorpe, Learning Officer, British Postal Museum and Archive.

 Some of our handling objects linked to the Institute of Sexology exhibition.
[object Object]

Some of our handling objects linked to the Institute of Sexology exhibition.

Donations are also a good way to build a collection:

“The collection is a mix of purchased and donated items usually from our Curatorial team and/or visitors. Some of the objects purchased are replicas. Information about the objects, including who donated the object and the history associated with it, is kept on a separate database which is regularly updated.”
Janice Welch, Senior Learning and Engagement Officer, Geffrye Museum.

Handling collections composed of accessioned objects usually require a lot of cross department collaboration like at the British Museum:

“Our objects are selected collaboratively by Learning, Curatorial and Conservation staff, to ensure that they are both interesting for visitors and durable enough to withstand repeated handling. The majority of our objects are original artefacts. A small number of high quality replicas can be effective when the rationale is strong.”
Charlotte Milligan, British Museum.

Wellcome Collection’s handling objects are non accessioned objects and the collection includes original objects purchased from private sellers and custom made replicas. Most recently we expanded our handling collection to incorporate objects related to our Institute of Sexology exhibition. Among other things, the Visitor Experience team bought a testis awareness model to help us cover topics such as testicular cancer, male sterilisation and birth control. We also commissioned the 3D printing of bronze phallic amulets, an ever-popular part of our permanent collection.

Regardless of the nature of the objects, original or replica, handling sessions have always been a success. In fact, I think that the debate of genuine versus replica is ignoring a big part of the handling collection experience that I’ll explore more in later posts: the wonderful interpretation work provided by the museum staff.

Muriel is a Visitor Services Assistant at Wellcome Collection.