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Touch and the limits of the rational museum, or can matter think?

Candlin, Fiona (2008) Touch and the limits of the rational museum, or can matter think? Senses and Society 3 (3), pp. 277-292. ISSN 1745-8927.

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Like many other museums, the Enlightenment Gallery at The British Museum provides handling objects for visitors. As Enlightenment notions of science and rational thought have all been predicated upon a shift away multi-sensory experience towards objective vision, the introduction of these tactile objects could be read as a pre-modern anachronism. In contrast, this paper uses a close analysis of the Hans Sloane’s approach to collecting and John Locke’s empirical philosophy to ask whether it is possible to locate touch as part of the Enlightenment rational project. If so, then how do our conceptions of empiricism, museums and visitors change? I argue that for Sloane and Locke touch functions in rational terms, indeed it may be the basis of rational thought. At the same time, a careful reading of Locke and of Condillac’s work on Locke shows that touch simultaneously opens up other, imaginative, speculative and emotional ways of knowing material objects. Crucially, these forms of knowing are not in opposition to rationality but form part of the rational project. Thus, this analysis of touch disputes the accepted transition from multisensory, non-rational and pre-modern experience to visual, rational and modern knowledge, questions accepted characterisations of empiricism and also considers contemporary visitors’ complex understandings of museum objects.

Item Type: Article
Keyword(s) / Subject(s): touch, senses, empiricism, Enlightenment, British Museum, John Locke, Etienne Bonnot de Condillac, audience
School or Research Centre: Birkbeck Schools and Research Centres > School of Arts > History of Art
Depositing User: Fiona Candlin
Date Deposited: 08 Oct 2009 12:31
Last Modified: 08 Apr 2014 11:56

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