‘The Human Touch: Making Art, Leaving Traces’ is a new, temporary exhibition at The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, with all exhibition and graphic design created by Nissen Richards Studio, working closely with the museum’s curators. The exhibition, which examines how the language of touch shapes and has shaped our existence, will run until August 1, 2021. In a separate commission, Nissen Richards Studio created a film to serve as both a trailer for and an introduction to the exhibition, exploring themes, filming key objects and adding additional content to link with the branding of the exhibition.
‘The Human Touch: Making Art, Leaving Traces’ draws on works of art spanning four thousand years from across the globe and explores the fundamental role of touch in human experience. The exhibition’s scope ranges from anatomy and the skin to the relationship between the brain, hand and creativity. It also looks at touch in relation to desire and possession, politics and ideology, reverence and iconoclasm. The final section brings together a series of reflections on touch, both historic and contemporary.
Objects within the exhibition range from ancient Egyptian limestone sculpture to medieval manuscripts and panel paintings – and from devotional and spiritual objects to love tokens and faith rings from all over the world. Drawings, paintings, prints and sculptures by Raphael, Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Carracci, Hogarth, Turner, Rodin, Degas, and Kollwitz are re-analyzed and seen alongside work by contemporary artists such as Judy Chicago, Frank Auerbach, Richard Long, the Chapman Brothers, Richard Rawlins, Donald Rodney and others.
Although the exhibition was planned long before the Covid-19 crisis, its timing and relevance to what people have lived through is particularly pertinent. “The events of 2020 have made us newly alive to the preciousness and the dangers of touch, making this exploration of our most fundamental sense particularly timely and resonant,” a spokesperson from The Fitzwilliam Museum commented.
The design of the exhibition uses texture, light and shadow to create an immersive and emotive journey for visitors that amplifies the power of the objects and art on show and underlines their narrative. A sense of tactility and craft formed part of the exhibition’s structural design for it to be more narrative and integral. There is a strong relationship between the graphics and the 3D forms to help achieve a full sensory and immersive journey for the visitor and underline links with the prints and gestures of the artists whose works are on show.
Exhibition structures are made up of freestanding curved walls, organic and fluid shapes which suggest cupped hands that hold the information and displays. The walls were designed to bear the signs of their maker and feature hand-applied plaster to the outside. Graphic info panels, meanwhile, feature a tactile and textured crinkled surface, created using thin, uncoated paper usually used for newspapers, which, when applied using paste, replicates the texture of skin. The introductory film for the exhibition was created by Nissen Richards Studio working with Director of Photography Pete Bateson, to explore the theme of touch and create a sense of tactility.
The exhibition is located in two large rooms on the museum’s first floor and is organized into eight sequential sections:
This area introduces and immerses visitors into the theme.
Anatomy of Touch
Our bodies are enveloped by the organ of touch, the skin. Touch receptors connected to our nervous system are everywhere, but most densely clustered in our fingertips, allowing us to read tactile writing systems like Braille, whilst our fingerprints, fully formed at birth, are unique to each individual. This section looks at our hands as instruments of astonishing complexity, looking at how dissection revealed their wondrous anatomy with a design so remarkable it was considered evidence of the existence of the creator. Artists explore both the complexity of the hand and the sensitivity of skin, telling its painful histories, both personal and political.
Hands at Work
This section of the exhibition considers the capabilities of touch, from delicacy to strength, looking at artists and makers who depend on the full range of the hand’s capacities, including strength, flexibility, delicacy. For some artists, hands are an alternative self-portrait, a statement of intent more telling and more expressive than the face, whilst makers can use the hand more directly still, in the form of fingerprints or an incising nail, or more indirectly, using instruments the human hand is uniquely equipped to manipulate – brushes, knives, pens.
This section looks at touch as a way to connect, but also to mark territory and signal our presence to others. Whilst tactile interactions are crucial for healthy development in children, comforting and creating lasting bonds, touch can also be experienced negatively and be inappropriate. The section spells out the necessity of touch, but also the need for consent and limits to its boundaries.
Power of Touch
The fifth section of the exhibition investigates the hand as an interface between the material and spiritual worlds. Tracing the lines of character and fate in the palm of the hand is for some a key to the soul, whilst rituals of touch can release the healing powers of the spirits, and hands and their touch can help us navigate death, in mourning, or in mythology. In the Christian story of the resurrection of Jesus, the human need to touch is laid bare in his encounters with Mary Magdalene and Doubting Thomas. When belief falters, touch can convince.
Revere / Destroy
In the penultimate section, the show looks at how acts of reverence and of protest often depend on touch. Our emotions are revealed in our gestures and how we treat the objects around us. Devotional actions require considered, solemn gentleness, from Buddhist spiritual practice to prayer beads, but actions motivated by anger or hatred involve injurious brute force. We obliterate, strike, scratch, and deface to make plain our dislike, and leave traces for others to see.
The Power is in Your Hands
The splayed hand, the clenched fist; political movements often deploy the symbolic power of the hand. Its image evokes protest and the refusal to submit, conveys agency and the desire for self-determination. Bound or shackled hands signal enslavement and dehumanization. The extended hand supports those in need, reaches out across divisions, and seals the bond between individuals, communities, and nations.
This final section looks at the psychology of touch and making a mark or leaving a trace.
Photography: Gareth Gardner