This month for First Thursday I took the bus up to the University of Washington and visited the Henry Art Gallery. My sister and a couple of friends decided to join me, which made the experience so much better. It was a beautiful day and the exhibits were relatively empty. Our visit was brief but we were able to partake of several lovely exhibits and explore some art forms we wouldn't typically seek out.
Downstairs there was a lovely display entitled "Summer Wheat: Full Circle". The three hung pieces consisted of a metal mesh covered in paint and they have the appearance of a sort of quilted fabric. We got very close (although careful to not touch) in order to better examine the technique used by the artist. Unbeknownst to us, there was a narrow line painted on the ground delineating the intended distance visitors remain from the art. Unfortunately, this barrier repeatedly proved to be insufficient. Two different groups of people were gently reminded to step back while we were viewing the pieces. A gallery attendant was stationed nearby with the responsibility of issuing said reminders.
In another area of the museum, we ran into another distance based quandary. There was a large temporary exhibit entitled "Fun, No Fun" which encompassed a built ramp system, a smattering of ground level sculptures, and floor coverings. There were no ropes, lines, or barriers of any kind. There were, however, two more gallery attendants. As we moved through the space, my friends asked me whether they were supposed to touch the works or not. When we asked the attendants about their policy we got a hesitant response. "Well.....no...you're not really supposed to", one said while looking at the other for confirmation.
The reluctance to utilize physical barriers is something I find most often in art museums. It can be perceived as taking away from the experience of the visitor or the aesthetic of the art itself. Most often though, I find it to be confusing and unsettling as a visitor. In particular, the use of psychological barriers, like the painted line on the floor, tend to be frequently overlooked. This can put the art at risk and make the guests feel foolish for not noticing their mistake.
Take it as the perspective of someone in collections management: I like physical barriers. I like climate controlled spaces and gloved hands. I like railings under which children cannot crawl and over which adults cannot step. I'm biased in this way.
I think the Henry does a great job of having many attendants on hand to deal with issues as they arise. Each person was friendly and engaging, even if a few could use a little more confidence in their answers. My main recommendation would be to have the attendants be more forthcoming with instructions; which saves the visitor from having to ask. Having a diligent person there to provide guidance to the visitor is a reasonable solution to the lack of physical barriers. I may always prefer a more tangible boundary to interacting with museum objects, but when it comes to art this may be a close second.