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Please Touch Gently: Bear Sculpture

Do Not Touch. A rule so clear, yet so tempting to break. Admit it, we’ve all done it. We’ve all touched an object in a museum when we thought no one was watching. The variety of textures found in MOA’s displays—the sumptuous fabrics, sleek soapstone and jagged carvings—can tease visitors with strong haptic tendencies. For those who are especially tactile, visiting the museum can turn into an exercise of restraint. If you fall into this category, there is hope: MOA is home to five objects we want you to touch!

“Visitors are faced with a conflict of information,” notes Senior Conservator Heidi Swierenga on the challenges that come with allowing visitors to touch a limited collection of objects. She explains that one of the main issues with this type of accessibility is ensuring that the select pieces are engaged with respectfully. Exposing works to public hands increases the likelihood of damage, but the importance of touch as a learning device is undeniable. “The value that you can get from having people interact with objects outweighs the risk,” Heidi says, adding that touch helps facilitate new understandings of cultural objects. So the next time you are at MOA and feel the urge to reach across a barrier and touch an object that’s off limits, turn to this one instead.

Bear Sculpture, by Bill Reid

MOA collection A50045. Photo by Jessica Bushey.

While Haida artist Bill Reid’s red cedar bear may look ferocious, it loves a gentle pat every now and then. Although today this sculpture proudly sits in the Great Hall, you might be surprised to learn that it wasn’t always intended to be displayed in the public eye. Dr. Walter Koerner originally commissioned Bill Reid to create this bear for his personal collection—specifically as a decoration for his backyard garden. But upon completion, Koerner decided that the piece looked too large for the space and donated it to UBC. It was installed on the UBC campus in the woods near International House and it wasn’t until after the new MOA building was completed in 1976 that Reid’s bear was moved inside. Evidence of this history can be felt in the rugged texture of the wood’s grain, weathered by the elements.