‘The Human Touch: Making Art, Leaving Traces’ exhibition review

As museums crawl out of hibernation, Emma reflects on an exhibition about human touch currently on display at the Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge.

The Fitzwilliam Museum’s newest exhibition, The Human Touch: Making Art, Leaving Traces, is very timely – opening on the 18th May when it was finally announced that we could hug our loved ones once again. The exhibition looks at ‘touch’ in a broad sense, offering a non-chronological exploration from ancient Egypt to the modern day. It includes a range of works: from artistic depictions of touch, evidence of the artist’s touch and objects that were designed to be touched. The exhibition opened with a fragment of ancient Egyptian painting where fingerprints had been used to create texture on the hide of a deer – a ‘trace’ of human touch from thousands of years ago. 

I thought the curation of the exhibition worked well, offering the viewer a wide range of information over a broad spectrum. From Early Modern sketches of the anatomy of the hand, to contemporary uses of the clenched fist as a symbol of power, the exhibition encouraged you to make connections across periods and geographies. Two of my favourite artworks were William Hogarth’s Before and After (1730-31) – humorous pendant pieces showing the hesitant beginnings and flushed aftermath of a sexual encounter. The bright blush on the cheeks of the young lovers in After really evokes a sense of the excitement of another’s touch and the vitality of the human body.

William Hogarth, Before and After, oil on canvas. Images courtesy of the Fitzwilliam Museum.

Most interesting to me, however, were the objects that were made to be touched. Especially stunning was the display of illuminated manuscripts owned by Cambridge collections. Exquisite in their use of colour and gold leaf, the exhibition reminded us that these devotional items were made to be touched and worshipped from.

Although most of the artwork on display was predominantly of European origin, it was also refreshing to see some inclusion of non-Western objects. In particular, a nkisi from the Congo was displayed as an example of an empowered figure that needed spiritual activation by hammering nails into it’s torso. This alone, however, felt somewhat disappointing. It would be great to have included a bigger range of African spiritual objects that involve this similar activation, such a Vodun bocio – a similarly empowered object which involves wrapping or binding.

Where this exhibition falls short, however, is its intangibility. With most objects kept behind glass, there was a sense of these artworks being very removed from the viewer. Of course, frequent touching of museum objects, which are often very fragile, would cause them great damage. But, there have been attempts in other museums to include a more tactile experience for visitors. York Art Gallery, for example, has several objects of textural interest which can be touched. Although it is important to work on improving the conservation of objects, museums could perhaps look into balancing this with a more sensual experience for visitors that might involve touching.

In current times, of course, this would just not be feasible. Although we are hesitantly stepping out of lockdown, restrictions remain. In museums where you still have to sanitise at the door, follow a one-way system, stay two metres away from everyone and wear a mask – the possibility of shared touching is definitely still off the cards. Perhaps this is why, although interesting and enjoyable, The Human Touch was missing something. The hushed space, dim lighting and predominance of objects in glass cabinets created a rather sterile environment. I overall felt that the exhibition was a rather frustrating experience of being encouraged to imagine the power and potency of touching, whilst being limited to only sight. 

You can read more about the exhibition and find out how to visit here. 

Emma is an MA student studying History of Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art, and a recent graduate of the University of York. She is interested mainly in eighteenth and nineteenth century art and the construction of culture and identity. She also loves curating, and when she is not writing essays you can usually find her in a gallery!

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