Risk-Assessing Rule-Breaking

The conservation team at the Museum receives feedback from Front of House staff that numerous visitors touch objects on open display despite the Museum’s general ‘Please Do Not Touch’ policy. We have anecdotal evidence, but we needed to find out the scale of the problem and whether this was a risk to some or all of the collections on open display. Collections Care is about balancing preservation with access: we looked at whether that balance was working on both sides, or neither.


To understand the likelihood of visitors touching collections and the potential damage caused by this, it was important to establish the prevalence of the problem. In 2018, we embarked on a project in which volunteers were recruited to undertake observation sessions. Between February 2018 and February 2019, they observed visitor behaviour around a pre-selected group of objects on open display.

The range of collections types observed included:

  • Framed oil paintings
  • Upholstered furniture
  • Gilt furniture
  • Marble/stone furniture
  • Wooden furniture
  • Carved stone, including figurative sculpture and sarcophagi
  • Stone/plaster figurative sculpture
  • Stone and metal abstract form sculpture

The range of display methods observed included:

  • Plinths of varying heights and depths
  • Kickboards (1-2cm thick wooden boards beneath furniture)
  • Paintings above furniture
  • Rugs beneath furniture (that can be walked on but provide visual distinction)

While display methods provide some deterrence from tactile engagement, additional deterrent methods included:

  • Visibility of and communication from staff
  • Do Not Touch signs (written in English only, no symbol) placed on or next to collections
  • Do Not Touch messaging on floor plan leaflets and website

With 1200 volunteer hours contributed to visitor observation, the data-set was substantial and indicated which objects were more vulnerable to touching by visitors.

Every effort was made to include a variety of different types of collections, display methods and gallery spaces. The data highlight some common risks across these collections, which allows for assumptions to be extrapolated to other collections and galleries.


The furniture pieces were far more vulnerable to both tactile engagement and accidental touches. A great deal of this was due to the positioning of the furniture.

The greatest occurrences of accidental touches were for textiles and furniture placed in the centre of rooms. These were for pieces that potentially forced people to change their route of walking to avoid touching them, when looking at paintings or exiting/entering the gallery space. This is unsurprising and supports anecdotal evidence.

Interestingly, having furniture in the centre of rooms did not necessarily attract more non-tactile attention from visitors overall. The furniture had significantly fewer instances of visual engagement than paintings or sculptural pieces.

Case Studies

Paintings with Furniture

Three items were under observation in the one gallery: a commode, a painting and a triptych. The furniture received significantly more tactile engagement, both accidental and purposeful, than the triptych on a plinth and the large painting displayed above the commode.

Painting on display above piece of furniture
A Village Festival by Brueghel (No.1192) & Commode (LL.034-2016)

However, over three times more people engaged (visually and through touch) with the painting hanging above the commode, than the commode. It is worth noting that the painting is of significant interest to visitors as it is well known and features frequently in group talks. It demonstrates the increased risk of physical damage to furniture placed below popular paintings.

There were more instances of touching of the commode (but not the painting) at weekends. This could be due to the higher number of visitors in the space, rather than because of any differences in visitor demographics.

The way the triptych is displayed seemed to eliminate the risk of accidental touches, with none recorded during the 57 hours of observation. The content of the painting (religious) and age in contrast to the painting above the commode may also explain the absence of tactile engagement.

Location and display change of the sculpture

The sculpture of Venus was observed in two different locations. The first location was in the Courtyard area of the Museum, near to the shop, café and entrance. The figure was on a large plinth and displayed next to an abstract metal sculpture. The second location was on the landing of the main entrance, in the historic setting of the original building. Here, the figure was on a kickboard (rather than a plinth) and displayed near to other sculptures of similar style.

Two sculptures of Venus
Large Blade Venus by William Turnbull (M.6-2006) & Venus Verticordia by John Gibson (M.4-1975)

While in the Courtyard, it attracted attention from two visitors per hour on average, and 16% of this engagement was tactile.

While displayed on the Founder’s Entrance Landing, it attracted attention from six people per hour, but only 6% of the engagement was tactile.

Sculpture of Venus
Venus Verticordia by John Gibson (M.4-1975) on display in the Founder’s Entrance of the Fitzwilliam Museum

16% tactile engagement is relatively high compared to other objects under observation, however the change in location and method of display significantly reduced it. While the loss of the plinth caused concern over the vulnerability to physical damage while on display, the change in location significantly affected visitor behaviour towards this sculpture.

So, despite removing the plinth and moving the Venus to an area where there is less visual presence of Museum staff, the engagement went up, but the rate of touching reduced significantly.


Various publications address both the history of the museum and how visitor experiences have changed.[1]A selection of publications to explore further include: Chatterjee, H., MacDonald, S., Prytherch, D. and Noble, G. (2008). Touch in museums. Oxford: Berg Classen, C. (2007), ‘Museum Manners: … Continue reading

Research does not just focus upon the objects, but also the museum environment: lighting, sounds, layout and design, and the demographic of the visitor all play a part.

The conservation discussions on balancing access and preservation are important when curating a display and considering educational objectives.   However, with any collections care risk assessment, it is important to understand the implications of mitigation strategies – the ways in which these affect visitor experience but also how they may or may not improve overall collections preservation.

When considering the collected results of any risk assessment for the display of collections, there are several aspects to consider: display method, placement within a space, type of display space, visual appeal, novelty, and visitor perception. These aspects need to be integrated alongside the typical risk-assessment focus, such as material and construction vulnerability to touch. This  results in a more nuanced risk assessment and potentially allows for more suitable protective or deterrent methods, as well as more ‘relaxed’ display methods.


With the arrival of COVID-19, we were thrown into an unknown world for all sorts of reasons. One of the benefits, however, was that the members of the Visitor Services team were keeping track of which collections were being touched by visitors. In the beginning, this was to reduce the risk of virus transmission – collections were initially barriered or otherwise isolated if touched.

This continuing record-keeping has highlighted issues that had not been considered initially. We can see which individual pieces, as opposed to general types of objects, are at highest risk. We have also been able to monitor damage and ask questions about whether risk mitigation strategies need to be adapted.

It has become clear how important touch is as a sense. And in collections care, with every barrier we put up (physically or nonphysical), we have to  ask what we are removing from the visitor experience and whether that sacrifice is worth it.

1 A selection of publications to explore further include:

Chatterjee, H., MacDonald, S., Prytherch, D. and Noble, G. (2008). Touch in museums. Oxford: Berg

Classen, C. (2007), ‘Museum Manners: The Sensory Life of the Early Museum’, in Journal of Social History, Vol. 40, No. 4, pp. 895-914

Elliott, M. (2006), ‘Side Effects: Looking, Touching, and Interacting in the Indian Museum, Kolkata’, in Journal of Museum Ethnography, No. 18 ‘Looking Backward, Looking Forward’: Papers from the Thirtieth Anniversary Conference Held at Manchester Museum, pp. 63-75

Ferilli, G. (1990), ‘Museum environments, visitors’ behaviour, and well-being: beyond the conventional wisdom’, in Museum management and curatorship, Vol. 32, Issue 1, pp. 80-102

Kottasz, R. (2006), ‘Understanding the Influences of Atmospheric Cues on the Emotional Response and Behaviours of Museum Visitors’, Journal of Nonprofit & Public Sector Marketing, Vol. 16 Issue ½, pp.95-121

Lister, A., & Banks, J. (2008) ‘Unlimited Access: Safeguarding Historic Textiles on Open Display in Public Buildings in the UK’ in Conservation and Access, Contributions to the London Congress, 15-19 September 2008, pp.156-161

Lloyd, H., Brimblecombe, P. and Lithgow, K. (2007), ‘Economics of Dust’, in Studies in Conservation, Vol. 52, No. 2, pp.135-146

Maerker, A. (2015), ‘Towards a Comparative History of Touch and Spaces of Display: The Body as Epistemic Object’, in Historical Social Research/Historische Sozialforschung, Vol. 40, No. 1 (151), Special Issue: Law and Conventions from a Historical Perspective, pp. 284-300

Pye, E. (2007). The Power of Touch, Walnut Creek, California: Left Coast Press.

Lantern Project in the Founder’s Entrance (Part 5)

What lies beneath…

As with many conservation projects, new discoveries are made as work progresses.

The contractors for the lantern repairs, Brown & Ralph, have provided an explanation as to what happened when they looked below the surface. What was revealed showed why this project is so crucial for the future of this historic building:

Having removed the original weather-proofing from the lantern, several areas of suspected decay to the timber structure beneath were identified. Upon further investigation, it was found that some timbers were rotten and the structure weakened in these areas. This is thought to be the result of long term minor water ingress.

“Once the areas were identified, the Museum’s Structural Engineer worked with carpenters from Brown & Ralph to design a repair to the timber structure. This involved propping critical load-bearing timbers, cutting out rotten timber, forming joints and ‘letting in’ of new timber.

“The repairs were all worked out individually to cause as little interference as possible but maintain maximum strength throughout the structure. B&R were able to carry out all the repairs employing traditional timber joints. The replacement timber (some with sections as large as 300mm x 150mm) was selected from a trusted saw mill and used slow grown Douglas Fir to mimic the timber used when constructed originally.

“As a result, the structure is back to full strength whilst maintaining the original aesthetics. It has since been re-boarded with similar Douglas Fir.”

Lantern Project in the Founder’s Entrance (Part 4)

Conservator at work

Work on the Founder’s Entrance lantern is in full swing. The internal plaster conservation works were completed last month, along with the conservation cleaning.  And Tobit Curteis Associates have given us the below update on the conservation paint treatments they have been working on.

“The scheme of decorative plasterwork and polychromy in the entrance hall is among the finest of its period in the country. It was conserved for the first time at the turn of the millennium at which point it was found that, although the surfaces were extremely dirty, having lived through the Industrial Revolution, the condition of the plaster and paint work was generally very good. Cleaning and conservation revealed the decoration in all its richness and had a huge effect on the appearance of the hall as visitors enter the museum. Some 17 years later, the conservation survey showed the condition still to be generally very good although there had been additional accumulation of dust and dirt as well as some minor flaking and loss resulting from unstable environmental conditions.”

Conservator at work

“The aim of the current conservation project therefore is to record and document the condition of the decoration and to carry out limited stabilisation, cleaning and retouching. The team of conservators, working with Tobit Curteis Associates, has now been working on the conservation of the polychromy for three weeks and the work is progressing well. Most of the treatment carried out by Tobit’ team in 1999 and 2000 has remained stable and the areas of more recent damage have responded well to treatment. The planned relighting of the entrance hall will further improve its appearance so that visitors can again experience the decorative scheme much as the architect originally intended.”

We shall keep you updated as the project progresses – watch this space!

Lantern Project in the Founder’s Entrance (Part 3)


Investigations into the lantern are well underway.  (Catch up with what has happened so far by reading Part 1 & 2.)

Specialist contractors Brown & Ralph have begun to look at the side windows of the lantern. After removing the glazing putty from one of the panes of glass, more information about the original intent has been revealed.

Original pane of glass removed
Original pane of glass removed

Each pane has a central section of etching, with a clear border around the edges. Over the years, as repairs have been done and panes replaced, the putty and paint lines have crept further inwards, making the clear border not visible.

Red dotted line showing original line
Red dotted line showing original line

The glass will be removed and cleaned. And, as the glass is reset, the putty line will be restored so that the clear border will be visible again. Looking at the windows as a whole, it is possible to tell which panes have been replaced.  The ones with a rose tint are original.  As part of this project, we intend to replace the newer non-tinted glass with rose-tinted etched glass in order to return to the original aesthetic.

View of side windows showing difference between old rose-tinted panes and the later non-tinted panes
View of side windows showing difference between old rose-tinted panes and the later non-tinted panes

Keep an eye on the blog – we will keep you updated as the project progresses.

Lantern Project in the Founder’s Entrance (Part 2)

Atlantes and lantern side windows viewed from scaffold platform
Atlantes and lantern side windows viewed from scaffold platform

Protection during installation of scaffolding

The installation of scaffolding took several weeks. During this time, there was a great awareness of the potential risk to the historic interiors and the collections in surrounding galleries.  There were several methods of protection in place, to minimise risk from physical damage (e.g. knocks, scratches), as well as dust.

Foam and plywood were used to protect the historic mosaic floor

Foam and plywood were used to protect the historic mosaic floor. Sculptures which could not be moved were boxed in.

Nearby objects were protected from potential knocking and additional dust fall

Nearby objects were protected from potential knocking and additional dust fall.

scaffold construction

During the scaffold construction, the balustrade, bannisters and floor were boarded. Boards underneath scaffold legs ensured the additional load to the floor was spread. The scaffolding was cleaned before coming into the building, and clean wood was used. There was an increased risk of dust ingress as the front door would have to be left open while materials were moved into the building, so additional dust protection was in place; plastic sheeting proved invaluable to minimise dust movement to surrounding galleries.

Up close

Scaffold platform
Scaffold platform aptly nicknamed ”The Ballroom”

Now the scaffolding is up, survey work has begun and it provides a rare opportunity to get up close and personal with the lantern interior.  Not only do we need to establish the extent of any deterioration or damage to the building and its decorative interiors, but also if we can understand the causes.

For example, staining in the dust below the side windows indicates that there has been condensation or water ingress. Closer inspection of the internal timber reveals that there is a condensation tray at the base of the lantern side windows. This design originally allows for collected condensation to flow through an outlet pipe to the outside.  It may be that the pipes have been blocked by insects, causing the tray to overflow.  To stop this happening in the future, we need to confirm the cause and either make modifications to the design or ensure changes to the maintenance of the current pipework.

Interior condensation
Interior condensation tray with pipe leading outside
Exterior pipes
Exterior pipes for condensation pipes

We are still at the early stages of the project, and so survey of the plasterwork and internal decoration are ongoing.

We shall keep you updated as the project progresses – watch this space!

Lantern Project in the Founder’s Entrance (Part 1)

The Fitzwilliam Museum is about to undertake a major building conservation project in the Founder’s Entrance. The focus will be on the lantern at the very top of the building.

The Founder’s building was first opened to the public in 1848 and the maintenance and preservation of the historic features is paramount. As a Grade 1 listed building, it is a priority to ensure it will remain resilient long into the future.

This project will look to address a variety of different aspects, including the replacement of some of the gutters and rain water pipes to prevent leaks. Repairs and replacement of some of the damaged curved glass and glazing compound (which holds the glass in place) will be done.  Conservation work to the internal decorative plasterwork and balustrade will also be undertaken.

Work has already begun in preparation for the scaffold installation: the sculptures that usually sit on the first floor landing have been boxed up and put into storage for safekeeping.

Sculpture shipping boxes
Moving day for the sculptures

From the end of April, a large scaffold platform will be installed across the whole of the Founder’s Entrance to allow access to the lantern.   This will mean that the Entrance Hall will need to be closed to visitors for a few weeks.  Once the scaffold is up and false ceiling put in, visitors will be able to visit the Hall once again.

This project will continue into early 2018. Please keep an eye on the Conservation and Collections Care blog for updates and photos.



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