University of Calgary
UofC Navigation

PURE Award winners 2016: Melissa Petrinack

Visual Studies major seeks to increase gallery visitor engagement through a more hands-on experience


Melissa Petrinack is examining how tactility in art could change visitor interaction. Photo by Dymphny Dronyk, University of Calgary

By Jennifer Robitaille
August 3, 2016

The University of Calgary’s Eyes High strategic statement reads “students will thrive in programs made rich by research and hands-on experiences”. The integration of teaching and research is a priority in this vision and the Program for Undergraduate Research Experience — also known as PURE — is an important initiative that reflects this commitment.

Each year undergraduates can apply for the prestigious PURE Awards, which provide financial research support to some of the university’s most promising students over the spring and summer months.

The program is designed to give undergraduate students the opportunity to learn how to develop research projects, undertake independent research and contribute to knowledge in their respective fields.

In this Q&A series, we hear from the 2016 PURE Award winners from the Faculty of Arts.


Name: Melissa Petrinack

Degree sought: Bachelor of Fine Arts in Visual Studies, Studio Concentration

What is your research topic?

Tactility in The Gallery is a research project designed to examine the creation of tactile art, the engagement of visitors within a gallery setting, and how tactility in art could change visitor interaction. Traditionally art in galleries remains untouchable, meaning that it can only be observed and understood visually.  This, to me as an artist, is problematic.  When art is understood only by the visual senses, the time of engagement with the work is extremely limited, as such appreciation of the artists labor further depreciates.

What attracted you to this particular research project?

As an artist, I use my hands as tools to learn and discover qualities of different mediums.  I’m consistently using touch, a key sensory modality, to create and better comprehend my materials.  I also noticed that museums and galleries often have signs posted prohibiting visitors from touching art and artifacts.  While I understand this is key to preservation and prevention of damage, I couldn’t help but feel that disallowing touch created a gap in visitor engagement.  After all, if a person has never painted in acrylic or oil, modeled clay or casted plaster, how would they come to fully understand these materials and textures without being able to touch and activate the tactile sense?

Why is this research important?

Typically a visitor to an art gallery only spends 10 seconds or less observing a modern piece of art. Moreover, the amount of time museum and gallery visitors spend observing and engaging with artworks is dramatically declining.  For fellow artists and myself, it is important to find out how to entice viewers and encourage them to look at artworks for longer periods of time. This is where engaging other senses like touch or sound becomes key.  Researching and creating touchable art in galleries and museums is a means to activating a declining audience.

What do you hope to achieve with this research?

Ultimately, my aim is to engage the tactile senses of gallery visitors.  My prediction is that allowing and inviting gallery visitors to touch art will not only extend the time they spend observing the artwork but it will also become a multisensory experience which will intern further their understanding of mediums, artworks and artifacts.  Although it is far fetched to think I may impact galleries and museums to change their codes of conduct, I hope my work will demonstrate that inclusion of tactility is beneficial to engaging gallery visitors within the art world.

What do you like most about your field of study?

Being an artist grants me the opportunity to extend my creative hand into any field of study.  I may research and pursue any subject matter. I get to explore a variety of subjects and develop insightful artwork that perhaps may shed some light or provide a new perspective on a universally accepted concept.  I also get to experiment with new and different mediums. As an artist it is my job to find the medium that will best communicate a message to an audience.

What advice would you give to other students considering applying for PURE awards next year?

Firstly, do not be afraid to apply regardless of how bizarre you feel your research idea may be.  Secondly, do not be afraid to devote your whole summer to your research, the rewards you will reap from such great dedication are astounding.  Moreover, there is nothing better than spending an entire summer researching something of interest to you alongside a supportive supervisor.