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In This Museum: Please Touch The Artwork

A joint exhibition between two Swiss museums invites visitors to experience the sensory, and sometimes sensual world of touch - by squeezing, scratching, feeling and stroking the works of art.

Learning to touch: the iCub robot, featured in the exhibition (MUDAC)
Learning to touch: the iCub robot, featured in the exhibition (MUDAC)
Lucia Sillig

LAUSANNE – In this exhibition, no one yells at you if you touch the works of art. Quite the opposite!

Lausanne's Museum of the Hand and the Museum of Design and Contemporary Applied Arts (MUDAC) joined forces to create a very particular exhibition. Visitors are invited to touch, squeeze, feel, and even stroke the exhibits – not to mention enjoy the strange pleasure of plunging both hands into a box of vibrating foam beads. It's the first time the two institutions have worked together on a project: "Touch. The world at your fingertips' is an exhibition spanning both museums that explores our sensory relationship with the world -- real and virtual alike. One of the goals of the exhibit is to help us grasp the importance of touch in today's technological world.

Touch is the first sense we develop: eight weeks after conception, a human embryo does not yet have eyes or ears, but his skin -- a tactile organ -- is already well developed. "Ducks use their beaks, insects their antennae and moles are covered with whiskers comparable to a cat's," explains Roxanne Currat, curator of the exhibition for the Museum of the Hand.

Tactile receptors that cover the skin send electrical signals to our cerebral cortex to give us vital information about our environment. These receptors are found in particularly high concentration on our fingers, lips, tongue and genitals. The sense of touch is a combination of several sensations, including pressure, temperature or pain – the latter being of the utmost importance to preserve the zones that are exposed to threats, especially hands.

Sensory illusions and our sensual relationship with the world

Touch also features tactile illusions, the fingers' version of optical illusions. For example, the exhibition plays with the fact that, at the same temperature, metal feels much colder to touch than wood. Or the way touching a ball with your fingers crossed makes your brain think you are in contact with two separate objects. Or the surprising sensation that your hand is burning on a lukewarm grill – part of an unsettling series of experiments in which the MUDAC invites visitors to put their fingers in a fake socket, toaster and pencil sharpener.

The Museum of the Hand chose to focus on tools. Carolina Liebling, one of the curators, notes that "From flint axes to computer mouses, science and technology have always focused on our hands." Hands that leave their mark on the objects, like Roger Federer's tennis racket or Chateaubriand's quill. Tools can become intricately linked to their user: studies have shown that over time, the brain of an athlete or a musician comes to see the racket or the guitar as an extension of their body.

When it comes to hand-related tools, prostheses undoubtedly represent a pinnacle. The exhibition showcases action figures, lent by Yverdon-les-Bains's Maison d'Ailleurs museum of science fiction. Several displays feature famous characters from mangas and comics: Testuo and his mechanical arm from the Japanese manga series Akira, X-Men's Wolverine and his painfully retractable metal claws. Compared to those, the electronic artificial skin prototypes developed by Lausanne's prestigious EPFL (Federal Institute of Technology) displayed next to them seem pretty harmless. "The goal is to connect this artificial skin to the patient's nervous system to achieve a sensation of touch through the prosthesis," explains Roxanne Currat. The tricky part is to obtain a material that is flexible enough and can adapt to the shape of the limb without being permanently deformed.

From hand-made savoir-faire to technology and ergonomy

The MUDAC's exhibition concentrates on the collaboration between man and tool, exemplified by fashion designers' savoir-faire, or by the elegance of a sheet metal cutting machine. A few steps away, visitors can run their fingers through a selection of embroidered fabrics from the Swiss textile region of St Gallen, a favorite of Parisian haute couture. "Touch is crucial when you are buying clothes," says Claire Favre Maxwell, who created the exhibit. "What's interesting is that there's often something complementary between what's pleasing to the eye and to the hand."

Even the virtual world is getting back to the sense of touch. "Remote controls took us far from the screens -- today we're going back to touching things, we need it," says Chantal Prod'Hom, director of the MUDAC. Through the evolution of game controllers and other joysticks, the museum illustrates technology's quest for greater contact – which involves many examples of ergonomic fails... In the Museum of the Hand, visitors can try a 3D mouse: a ball attached to flexible arms that stumbles, slides or bounces off a virtual surface -- visible only on a screen. This technology is used by NASA to remotely guide its robotic exploration rovers, or in the field of telemedicine, enabling surgeons to feel the tissue resistance met by their robotic tools. Looking ahead, these kinds of prototypes might one day help doctors to check someone's pulse of a patient from a distance or take their temperature.

One particular work of art offers the possibility to experiment with another type of remote interaction: when the visitor approaches, a strange avatar that looks like a starfish, or a flower is projected on a giant screen, together with the avatars of the other museum's visitors. If the visitor gets closer, the shapes start to interact, in a strange-looking ballet.

The installation, designed to encourage strangers to get in touch with strangers in a public space, virtually crosses the limits of modesty. "We usually only touch people we know well, and then only under certain circumstances," says Claire Favre Maxwell.

Touch lasts until January 13, 2013 at the Museum of the Hand and October 28, 2012 at the MUDAC.

Read more from Le Temps in French

Photo – MUDAC

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