To glove or not to glove? That is the question!

Hello everyone, it’s Tim again!

A few weeks ago, I overheard a couple of conversations regarding the “handling trolley” (a station filled with objects that visitors can hold) at Colchester Castle. I’ve been lucky enough to man the trolley and use it to interact with visitors on a few occasions, but this is not why I was so curious about what was being discussed. What I found interesting was the different opinions on exactly how the trolley should work and what it should contain.

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At my request, I was allowed to sit in on the formal discussion about the future of the  trolley. The main issue was essentially one of conservation/protection vs. the experience of touching a genuine historical artefact (or more simply: gloves or no gloves!).

Glynn (Senior Collections and Learning Curator) and a team of Curators and Conservators decided that they must first agree on the exact purpose of the trolley. It was originally intended to be a completely text-free zone. Staff would direct visitors to the area of the museum relevant to the object they had been handling. Over time however, large pieces of text about each object had appeared, as an aid for staff discussing them with visitors. At the meeting, a middle-ground was agreed upon, whereby for each object or collection of objects, there would be a series of short points, indicating ways they could be used to engage visitors.

When objects are selected for the trolley, they are carefully risk assessed. The team think about how the public might engage with them, as well as their research/display potential. They appreciate how inspiring a hands-on experience can be. The final selection is designed to relate to those objects on display, as well as explore some of the wider themes and time periods.

As for the issue of gloves or no gloves, there are of course many objects that should never be handled without them. As well as the risk to the objects from the acidic sweat on our hands, many are treated with, or naturally contain, toxic chemicals. Older taxidermy specimens, for example, were often treated with arsenic in order to help preserve them! It was decided that gloves could act as a barrier to people’s enjoyment of the objects, particularly children. Also, the cost of disposable or washing of cotton gloves could become an issue. The team agreed that all objects on the trolley would be able to be handled without gloves. The more fragile/toxic ones would be placed in transparent boxes, so at least visitors could get up closer than if they were in a regular display.

I hope that I’ll be able to do a follow-up to this blog, to let you know how and when the trolley has been re-vamped and what exciting things you can come and handle for yourselves!

For now though, have a wonderful Christmas and a happy New Year!

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