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New Show Invites Visitors to “Please Touch” and Hold

January 23, 2012
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It’s the first rule at any art museum: do not touch the artifacts. Except at this museum and at this one time.

At the Touch and the Enjoyment of Sculpture: Exploring the Appeal of Renaissance Statuettes exhibition — at the Walters Art Museum through April 15 – visitors are invited to disregard that decree and to hold, stroke and even caress the pieces.

In fact, handling the objects d’arts – which include replicas of famous 16th century statuettes that are part of the Walters’ collection – is one of the reasons behind the exhibition, explains neuroscientist Steven Hsiao of the Johns Hopkins Brain Science Institute, which is partnering with the Walters on this show – the fourth in a series of projects between the museum and Johns Hopkins.

Steven Hsiao

Steven Hsiao

“We’re challenging people to think about why physical contact with works of art can be so satisfying,” says Hsiao, whose research through the Zanvyl Krieger Mind-Brain Institute includes exploring many aspects of humans’ sense of touch. “In fact, as people browse the exhibition, we will be asking them to react to what they are seeing and feeling.”

But more on that in a moment.

The installation incorporates 12 works of art from the Walters collection, along with 22 replicas for visitors to touch and rate. It melds the research interests of Hsiao, who specializes in many facets of touch in his work at the Johns Hopkins’ Department of Neuroscience, and that of Joaneath Spicer, Walters’ curator of Renaissance and Baroque Art, who studies the new taste in the Renaissance for collecting and commissioning small statuettes and other luxury goods that were satisfying to touch and handle.

But the special appeal of this exhibition lies in the opportunity to join in comparative experiments with the statuettes (well, replicas of them, actually).

“We’ll be asking visitors to handle them and to tell us what sculptures they prefer and to rate how they like sculptures that have been modified in their shape and texture.  This exhibition allows us to dissect why some objects feel better than others” Hsiao says.

Visitors will register these preferences, and other reactions, on Apple iPads and visitors will be able to see a dynamic display of their responses. This data will be used as part of Hsaio’s and also Spicer’s research on tactile aesthetics. (Please note that visitors will not be handling the actual 16th century artwork and will only be permitted to touch replicas exclusively fashioned for the show.)

The Walters Art Museum is open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Sundays and is located at 600 North Charles Street in Baltimore.

For more information about Hsiao:


About the Johns Hopkins Brain Science Institute:


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