A History of "Hands-Off" Items

A History of "Hands-Off" Items

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Carolyn Purnell
Feb 11, 2015
(Image credit: Kim Lucian)

Imagine: a guest comes into your home and starts fondling your prized collection of nineteenth-century porcelain. He then wanders over to a painted landscape, lovingly strokes it, and then touches his tongue to the canvas. He sniffs your collection of crystal decanters and then puts his ear up to the ship-in-a-bottle that your grandfather built. I'd guess that at this point you're up in arms, but this wasn't always so weird.

There are many good reasons why you might be upset with this guest, and chances are, he would never be invited back to your home. But his behavior, while completely unacceptable for our own time, may not have been so rude or bizarre in a different historical era.

Sensory anthropologist Constance Classen has written about how, in England in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the owners of museums and private collections encouraged people to pick up, handle, sniff, and even taste artifacts.º (If you've ever wondered why someone would want to lick a mummy, and you know you have, then here's a recent Smithsonian piece that can tell you more.) In large part, this is because collectors believed that true knowledge of an object, as well as an intense and intimate sense of wonder and awe, could only be gained by experiencing it with multiple senses. Sight alone was not enough to give you a full sense of an artifact.

Hosts were expected to permit their guests to touch rare items. Sometimes, of course, this could go awry. At one of Lord Harcourt of Nuneham's parties, the renowned naturalist William Buckland ended up eating one of Nuneham's most prized objects: an embalmed sliver of Louis XIV's heart.º But generally speaking, there were few "hands-off" objects in a host's home.

Classen writes about a highly specific time period and a particular context, of course. Sacred religious objects are often offered up for sightseeing, but in many instances, they are kept protected. (That said, it was traditional in Catholic Europe for relics to be handled on particular days, and on certain occasions, even the king, who was himself considered sacred, could be touched.) Surely people in all ages have felt the impulse to protect items that are near and dear to them, and individuals will have differing levels of trust with different people. Also, cultural norms have a large role to play here.

But if one puts those qualifications aside and paints with a broad brush, it is interesting to consider why people in the 21st century may be less inclined to have their friends lick, handle, or sniff their prized possessions. (And, truth be told, it's not just guests that don't touch our objects. I'll be the first to admit that I don't often handle the fragile objects in my home. Paintings stay on the wall, free from touch. A box covered in seashells is rarely opened; certain curios stay behind glass in a cupboard in my office. Once they're on display, my fragile pieces tend to become visual fodder.)

One obvious reason is that our notions of preservation and conservation have dramatically changed. Touching poses the risk of destruction or decay, and if an object is one that we treasure and want to pass to others, we might be willing to give up some of our liberties in handling an object. This is why we're more "hands-off" with fragile or rare objects.

Another reason that sensory historians have put forward is that in the modern era, we depend more on our eyesight. The Victorians thought that sight could be deceptive, and to really understand something, you had to experience it with multiple senses. But some anthropologists have argued that in the 21st century, members of Western societies, at least, are more inclined to trust their eyes, believe in the things they see, and gather information about the world primarily through vision. From this perspective, we might be more used to looking at objects than we are to learning about them in other ways. (For a further description of this argument, see Mark M. Smith's Sensing the Past.)

Another reason could be that since the 19th century, the home has become an even more personal and private space, which means that we consider our belongings to be more personal and private. They are an extension of ourselves, an expression of our memories, desires, and the things we cherish, and thus, we want to keep them safe. This isn't to say that people in the past weren't attached to their belongings, but they may not have seen them in the same deeply private way that we do.

I'm sure there are plenty more reasons, and this is just a scratch on the surface of a huge question. I'm curious, though: What objects in your home are you most inclined to consider hands-off, and why? And what kinds of physical engagement do you have with the most precious items in your home? Do you handle them freely and let others handle them, or do they stay up on shelves or behind closed doors?

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