Presumably, we all know we shouldn’t touch the artwork in museums. Even if we reeeeeeally want to—like if the texture just seems SO touchable, or we’re SUPER curious about the material used to create the artwork, or the painting just looks so real we need to touch it to be sure it’s not a sculpture… we shouldn’t touch them. We know this, but it can be hard, sometimes, to keep our busy hands in our pockets or tucked safely behind our backs as we lean in to examine an artwork up close. Maybe that’s why there are a few NON-artwork things at our museum that DO get touched a lot, and in these cases… it’s okay.
One of those things is the concrete. The surface of Crystal Bridges’ concrete walls and pillars is surprisingly silky smooth. That’s because it’s fine-grained architectural concrete that has been hand polished to a satin texture. I see museum guests rubbing their hands on it all the time: often urging their companions to touch, as well. It feels more like marble than concrete.
Another thing is the copper cladding on the outside of the new north elevator tower. The copper is still quite new, and its bright color and new-penny shine is just irresistible. Guests put their hands on it every day. We know because we can see their handprints. They appear in dark, indelible brown stains on the copper.
Why does this happen? Copper “oxidizes” over time: a chemical reaction between the copper molecules and the oxygen, water, and other chemicals in the air forms a dark-brown patina on the surface, in much the same way rust forms on iron. You can see this patina on the roofs of Crystal Bridges’ buildings. They, too, are copper; but in the six years since the museum was built, they have completely oxidized to this deep brown color. When you touch the copper surface, the moisture and oil in your hands speeds up this process dramatically: thus, you see dozens of brown, oxidized handprints where guests have touched the walls of the north tower.
Since these marks began to appear, we have received repeated questions from museum guests asking what we mean to “do about” the handprints, which many think are unsightly. Interestingly—as this letter to the staff from Crystal Bridges’ Executive Director, Rod Bigelow, shows: the answer to that question is: “Nothing.” — LD
From: Rod Bigelow, Crystal Bridges’ Executive Director and Chief Diversity and Inclusion Officer
Re: Handprints on the north tower
When Moshe Safdie developed his concept for Crystal Bridges, he was charged with the task of creating a building that not only opened up to nature, but acted as a tool for understanding our relationship with our environment. Through the use of monumental expanses of glass, materials that record the natural world, and the feat of nestling the building in an active waterway, Safdie made nature the central exhibition at the museum. The architectural concrete stains and scars with the soaking from a heavy down pour and the bleaching power of the summer sun. The copper roofs patina with age. The cedar banding expresses the current exterior conditions—notice how after a period of deep rain the banding becomes dark and heavy, while on dry days like yesterday sections of it almost disappear into the concrete. All of these reactions are intentional.
The copper on the new elevator tower is no different. Today it is bright and orange; next year it may more closely resemble the color of the roof on the gallery bridge—an evolution caused by interactions with water, air, and us. When the oil on our hands interacts with the copper, even the smallest touch, it expedites the material’s evolution. This building literally absorbs something from every guest that walks through it—just like us it is altered by every interaction that it has. Those handprints on the elevator should make you smile, because they represent the spirit of human curiosity. To me it reminds me why this place exists: to be a beacon of creativity and inspiration, and stand as a monument to those who came before us.
If a building was a symphony, its materials would be the instruments. Each material acts differently when manipulated, creating specific, intentional human experiences. You might say that the materials tell a story. They teach us to slow down and take note of the subtle differences. Because the building is a record book of them, it has made me more aware of the natural cycles and systems of our world. At first glance, those handprints on the tower may look messy, but if you look a little closer, I hope you will see that the building is doing its job.
So, the upshot is: if you don’t like the handprints, don’t worry. In a year or two they will disappear into the overall oxidation that is destined to occur to those bright, shiny copper walls.
Until then, these handprints can serve as a perfect illustration of the surprising impact even a single touch can have on a work of art—even if at first it seems to leave no evidence. —LD