The Cardinal Rule: Please Do Not Touch the Art

So you want to touch the art… I understand—art is alluring, especially when it’s constructed with materials that shine, move, swirl, jiggle, or have a thrilling texture. But touching the art causes more damage than most people realize. It is our duty as museum staff to preserve and keep safe the artworks that are displayed in our galleries. And it is our duty as members of the art community to respect local, national, and global artists who take the time to visit the museum and trust all of us with the future of their creations. Below is a short list of the many reasons why we need to honor the cardinal rule.

  1. Human skin is dirty.

Our hands and fingers are covered in layers of soil, skin cells, dirt, and grease that we normally take for granted—hence why it’s recommended that you Lysol doorknobs when your family is sick. That grease and grime are not only visually unattractive because they make the art look dirty—they actually can cause physical and chemical damage to each unique work of art. So before you think about leaving your greasy fingerprint as a momentum of your museum visit, remember: Touching the art will adversely affect how future museum-goers view the artwork.

Rona Pondick’s sculptures are shiny and reflective—making fingerprints on their surfaces much more visible. | Rona Pondick | “Prairie Dog” | Photo courtesy of Galerie Thaddaeus Ropac, Sonnabend Gallery, Zevitas/Marcus Gallery, and the artist.

  1. Our touch melts away the magic.

Physically touching a piece of art will melt away the magic—quite literally, in fact. The heat from our hands can easily melt oil paint, charcoal sketches, the gilding on frames, and even the texture of certain pieces of art. For instance, one of our recent A-I-R Space artists was Cara Krebs, whose work was constructed out of molded Jell-O. Imagine if someone had placed their palm on top of the art or stuck their finger into the side of it—the mold would have been destroyed. The fate of delicate works of art may truly lay in the palms of our hands.

Cara Krebs’ whimsical sculptures lure viewers in, but are easily breakable to the touch. | Cara Krebs | Sehnsunct | Photo courtesy of the artist

  1. It’s dangerous!

Sometimes, when visiting a museum, we are not fully aware of what materials were used to construct a work of art. Imagine how unfortunate it would be if you saw a fluffy teddy bear as part of an installation, touched it, and discovered that it was actually a bear comprised of sharp glass and needles. Don’t take a trip to the hospital because curiosity killed the cat—spend your visit to the museum, surrounded by artworks at a safe distance.

Jennifer Seely’s wall of nails is definitely meant to be seen and not touched. | Jennifer Seely | Supporting Elements

  1. If your kid breaks something, it’s still your fault.

Children can be squirrely, especially when they are around objects that make them excited—and art is very exciting! Art museums welcome all ages, and that includes your kiddos. But be aware of how your kids are behaving. Remind them that they cannot touch the art or run around. If a child accidentally knocks something over, the broken artwork is ultimately now the parents’ responsibility. Keep your kids close, teach them to respect art, and allow them to expand their creative minds.

Mike Lee’s A-I-R Space exhibition had many artworks around the floor, requiring a more diligent use of space when viewing the exhibition. | Mike Lee | Digital Mirror: Selfie Consciousness

  1. It’s irreplaceable—so don’t break it.

There have been countless accidents caused by reckless or careless behavior in the world of art and history. Remember the ex-Boy Scout leaders that pushed over an ancient boulder in Southern Utah? Or the time when a tourist in Florence broke the finger off of a 600-year-old statue at the Museo dell’Opera del Duomo? These objects are irreplaceable and priceless. If you break a work of art, there is no chance of getting it back to the way the artist originally created it. Artists dedicate countless hours, days, sometimes months of time on their work, and to have that work destroyed in mere seconds due to reckless curiosity would be devastating. This leads me to my last and possibly most important point…

Each of Alyce Carrier’s ceramics are one-of-a-kind; if this vase had broken, there would never be another one exactly like it. Alyce Carrier | Untitled | Ceramic

  1. It’s just plain rude.

Imagine that you’re a doctor and there happens to be a child running through each room in the hospital, poking the faces of each of your patients. Or imagine that you are a construction worker and people continually stop by your work site to pick up your power tools, lean on unsteady building structures, or to try and take the crane for a ride. Or imagine that you are a cake decorator, and with every cake you finish, a customer sticks their finger into it just to see what it tastes like. No one would think that these behaviors are rational or acceptable; all of these behaviors are annoying, dangerous, destructive, or a combination of all of the above. Being an artist is an occupation like any other, and their work deserves to be respected just like anyone else’s.


Touching the art might make you feel pleased as punch for a few seconds, but the aftermath is nothing to feel proud of at all. When you touch a work of art and damage it in any way, you ruin the viewing quality for every future museum-goer. It also decreases the value of the artwork, negatively affecting the artist and their ability to take the work to a new gallery or forcing them to spend more time on fixing (or laying to rest) a once-perfect piece.


But there is good news for everyone out there who finds themselves allured by the prospect of touching a work of art: you can be a hero, just like all of the heroes before you who respected the cardinal rule. These individuals have allowed you to see the works of art in their original form. They are the reason contemporary artists can travel from city to city, displaying their work as though it is the first time. They help ensure that our art communities, local and otherwise, become closer by connecting through art exhibitions, and expanding the wide range of audiences that visit the museum each day. So, be a hero by honoring the cardinal rule: Do not touch the art.

#preserveart #donttouchtheartwork