Karen Heller: Look but don't touch at the Barnes

The Barnes' new galleries replicate the old ones but receive many more visitors - and not everyone is behaving.
The Barnes' new galleries replicate the old ones but receive many more visitors - and not everyone is behaving. (MICHAEL BRYANT / Staff Photographer)
Posted: April 22, 2013

We know the ladies are luscious, but please do not touch the Renoirs.

Or sit on an 18th-century Windsor chair, no matter how welcoming.

Or pat the Modigliani limestone head.

Which visitors to the Barnes Foundation on the parkway have been doing since the new location opened last May.

A guard told me, "The kids are often better behaved than the adults."

This, I believe, having observed an animated group of young art lovers stay within the brown lines delineated on the gallery rooms' wooden floors.

Their elders? Not so much.

"The visitors are opening drawers of furniture, brushing their hands against the chests," a Barnes desk attendant said. "One man put his hands right on the frame."

Actually, this has happened repeatedly, as well as placing personal belongings on top of Pennsylvania German chests. The worst? Someone plopped masticated gum into a decorative vase.

The situation has become so vexing that the Barnes' president and executive director, Derek Gillman, in his lush Oxford-educated accent, will soon caution visitors on the iPod audio guides that "you musn't touch, or get too close to the paintings, furniture, or decorative objects. If you forget, our guards will ask you to step back."

Ticket prices will increase four dollars to $22 next month, the audio guides with the behavior admonition included in the price. Gillman will advise, accompanied by chamber music: "Please don't sit on any of the chairs in the room. That's what the benches are for." The audio guide is superb, though it reduces visitor commentary, the spectacular eavesdropping a hallmark of the Merion experience.

Dr. Albert C. Barnes was a butcher's son born in Kensington, a onetime pugilist and bookie, who became a self-made millionaire. He wrote of art educating "the plain people," but the plain did not venture to his collection on Merion's elegant Latch's Lane.

Nor did Barnes, during the quarter century he supervised his sublime collection, invite them, though he boasted, "I am trying to do the biggest thing for Philadelphia that any one man has ever attempted." He was complicated and cantankerous that way. "I came into the world maladjusted," he noted, "and I still am."

The man was, by near-universal acclaim, a royal pain in the whatever. Barnes would have been apoplectic about miscreants sitting in his chairs, manhandling his priceless art. Rather than Gillman's gentle imploring, twice on the audio, "please don't touch," Barnes might have excoriated the barbarians.

"This is a byproduct of our success," Gillman told me. In Merion, "we were so used to empty galleries," only 62,000 visitors a year, many veteran museum patrons. It was akin to a secret club.

In Philadelphia, in a building nearly 10 times larger, the Barnes is a grand success with 300,000 visitors, 20 percent above projection. It has become exactly what advocates of the move hoped it would be: a jewel enjoyed by all. There are more children, more senior citizens, more people who never knew of the Barnes.

Yet the galleries remain small, replicating Merion in size and layout, with no ropes or "do not touch" signage. It is this very intimacy, especially in the darker second-floor galleries no larger than a spare bedroom, that unintentionally invites patrons to behave as though they were in someone's home - someone's exceptionally nice home that happens to hold 181 Renoirs.

"They really do feel comfortable here," Gillman told me. The goal is "making this a familiar and happy experience, and really a rewarding one." The audio guide encourages visitors "to come back often. I promise that you will always find something here to delight you anew."

But you musn't touch. Step back. Please don't sit on any of the chairs in the room. That's what the benches are for.

Contact Karen Heller

at 215-854-2586 or kheller@phillynews.com, or follow on Twitter at @kheller.

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