On the Spot: Joaneath Spicer

Joaneath Spicer, the Walters’ James A. Murnaghan Curator of Renaissance and Baroque Art, co-curated "Touch and the Enjoyment of Sculpture."

The Walters Art Museum’s newest exhibition is a restless child’s dream. Unlike most gallery shows, “Touch and the Enjoyment of Sculpture” encourages visitors to caress and even pick up the art: 22 bronze and resin replicas of Renaissance-era sculptures, which accompany 12 (untouchable) original works on view from the museum’s permanent collection. The show is the third in a series of exhibits the Walters has organized with the Johns Hopkins University Brain Science Institute. Joaneath Spicer, the Walters’ James A. Murnaghan Curator of Renaissance and Baroque Art, co-curated the exhibit.

What’s the goal of this exhibition?
We’re trying to put people back in touch with their sense of tactility to give them a sense of what it was like before there were museums, when people had objects in their homes.

It was common to touch artwork?
Absolutely, and pick it up. In the very distant past, the Greeks and Romans cared for their statues basically as if they were real people.

What’s the appeal of touching art?
Touching offers a kind of immediacy to us that really no other sense offers. It’s a completely different sense from vision.

Feel free to touch a replica of the circa-1500 “Modest Venus” at the Walters Art Museum.

Why focus on Renaissance art?
In the Renaissance, new technology was meant to be handheld. For example, in the Middle Ages, you told time indoors with an hourglass — which you wouldn’t touch. But in the early 1500s, the pocket watch was invented, and what do you know? It fit exactly in the palm of the hand. So, it’s the beginning of modern ergonomics.

What exactly does ergonomics have to do with these works?
It’s … [about] making something more effective by taking into consideration how that object is used. If the grip of a pistol is now shaped so that it fits in your hand, it becomes more effective. You can hold it more securely, and you can fire it with one hand.

What’s your favorite piece in the show to touch?
It would probably be that pistol — with gloves on, of course. It’s from the mid-16th century, and it’s a beautiful wheel-lock pistol. But the statuettes are great, too. Holding some of these while I was setting up the installation made me suddenly think, “Whoa, this feels fantastic.”

Walters Art Museum, 600 N. Charles St., Baltimore; through April 15, free; 410-547-9000.

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