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Do Not Touch!

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So far, these electronic pages have covered aspects of two of our senses – smell and hearing. In view of some of my emails these seem to have struck a chord with a few of you, recalling memories either long since forgotten or else in need of urgent resuscitation. Lockdown blues, perhaps? This time I want to take a look at another – touch. Surprising, you might think, but read on ……

I grew up in a world where going to a museum meant not touching anything and if you weren’t sure, there were plenty of messages to remind you. It wasn’t just the curators wanting to make sure nasty finger prints didn’t spoil the ‘museum quality’ paintwork finish of their exhibits. It was also for the very good reason that touching some objects, particularly in large numbers, would eventually destroy the object. Think paper, think fabrics. And then there were unpleasant reminders too. A cold locomotive might have oil on its link motion to protect it, a locomotive in steam might simply be hot.

In more recent times (meaning after my childhood!) museums began to think more seriously about the benefits to individuals of being able to touch objects. Nowadays museums have boxes of small objects which are deliberately compiled so that groups can handle them and learn something about not only their history, but their ‘feel’ - from which can come some sort of individual reading of what the object was/is and how it fits in to their own life experiences. One obvious example would be education boxes made up for groups of schoolchildren to use but it also applies to elderly participants and those suffering some sort of disability. There are some spectacular examples on record of the contents of boxes triggering childhood memories, to the obvious delight of the handler. This often leads to other, long submerged memories. It’s a form of therapy. In one incident I can recall, the curator included a twist of salt in blue paper, as you used to find in packets of crisps. It was a delight for the group and out poured many memories of childhood, all based on remembering that blue twist of salt. Another participant suggested a marble. Why? ‘Because in between spotting trains we used to play marbles….’ What ever happened to marbles?

Playing marbles, James Goetz

So, what might be in your box of objects, ready to be touched? An Edmondson ticket, perhaps, a railway badge, a guard’s whistle?

Large exhibits are more of a challenge to the tactile visitor but I would like to make a case for some touching to be actively encouraged. You know, that finger resting on the cold brass of an oil reservoir, that feel of the copper piping to the injectors beneath the cab of ‘Evening Star’ (but don’t tell the curators!).

A couple of years ago I was in the NRM, standing quite close to ‘Mallard’ when two men approached the locomotive. They were both elderly but one was clearly blind and his companion was explaining to him what they were looking at. He took his blind companion’s hand and slowly drew his fingers along the curved running board, above the valance. Warm fingers on cold metal. This was a slow process and took some time but it was clear they both got huge pleasure from it. If ever there was a case for touching, that was it.

York Station. Owen Humphreys

On another occasion I stood on York station platform when Flying Scotsman pulled in an another excursion. Crowds pressed worryingly close. Some were deterred by what was potentially a very hot object which might explode steam at any moment. But, then, there was the father lifting up his young son so he could touch the numbers on the cab side. What is it about touch? That sense that by touching some painted numbers we somehow connect to the locomotive itself?

Go on, let yourself go, imagine touching the very soul of the machine, the moment when metal is more than just metal. It’s an ‘experience’.


John Swanwick

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