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Revisiting Touch in Pandemic Year Two

As I write this post, we are in the second year of the Covid-19 pandemic, and maybe we are through the worst of it. People are getting vaccinated. The number of corona infections is falling, and public places, including museums, are re-opening.

As of April 2021, advice from the Centers for Disease Control indicates that fully-vaccinated people can “go to an uncrowded, indoor shopping center or museum”.

Now is a good time to revisit considerations about tactile experiences in museums. In this post, I will comment on the scientific understanding of viral transmission of Covid-19 as primarily airborne, and not from particles on surfaces. Then I will summarize recommendations about touch objects and make some observations for best practices in the present and near future.

An article published in The Lancet Infectious Diseases described a study in which the authors sampled surfaces in hospital rooms to see if they could detect Covid-19 particles. They could not find virus particles on most surfaces. This suggests that “environmental contamination leading to SARS-CoV-2 (Corona virus) transmission is unlikely to occur in real-life conditions, provided that standard cleaning procedures and precautions are enforced.”

Guidance issued by the Centers for Disease control continues to recommend cleaning and other preventative measures for reducing viral transmission. This includes the now-familiar advice to wear a mask, maintain at least six feet of physical distance from others, avoid crowds and poorly ventilated spaces, and practice good hand hygiene.

Another standard piece of advice for public places is to clean high-touch surfaces at least once a day. Some examples of high-touch surfaces include pens, counters, shopping carts, tables, doorknobs, light switches, handles, stair rails, elevator buttons, desks, keyboards, and phones. The precautions that museums adopt for high touch surfaces can be applied to touch objects in exhibits.

Last year, I had conversations with tactile artists about ways to adapt to new norms in the Covid-19 era. Collectively, we came up with several solutions that might allow people to safely handle objects in an exhibit:

– Proper hand hygiene can be encouraged by providing hand sanitizer or wipes in a standard location within the physical exhibit space.

– Materials that are easily clean can be chosen as touchable objects.

– Museum visitors could be provided with tactile handouts that they can touch and then take them when they leave the exhibit.

Here is a summary of our presentation on accessible touch objects. This article explains how to make tactile handouts.

I think these recommendations continue to be useful for allowing tactile explorations at museums that follow common preventative measures like avoiding crowding, requiring mask wearing, supporting good hand hygiene, and cleaning high touch surfaces. I hope that we can move beyond a fear of touching objects, follow best practices, and regain opportunities to have tactile and multi-sensory experiences.