We usually stage exhibitions and go to museums to see art and exhibits. The sight is still the most stimulated sense in a museum, even though some will find rooms have their own smell and will enjoy the muffled whisper heard in a museum’s corridors.
Some museums have decided to think out of the sight box and tickle other senses… sometimes even all of our senses in smart and innovative ways. Let’s explore exhibitions that you could smell, hear, touch or taste in the latest years and that all have in common the ability to create an emotion or tell the visitor something about themselves and their environment.
The first museum that comes to mind when you think about learning with your five senses is certainly MOFAD. Located in Brooklyn, the Museum of Food and Drink literally exhibits what we eat. Thanks to edible exhibits and smell spots, MOFAD seeks to advance our understanding of the culture, history, science, production and commerce that surround for and drink. Their first exhibition is about the natural and industrial flavors, a subject that is clearly universal and allows everyone to get a new approach of everyday food thanks to smell and taste. All their exhibitions are designed by an in-house lab as a way for visitors to explore their dietary habits and their relationship with food.
While all MOFAD exhibitions get designed by their own lab, Tate has chosen a very different approach. Indeed, for Tate Sensorium (by the 2015 IK Prize winner Flying Objects), they decided to work with a composer, a perfume designer and a chocolate maker. For this small but very appealing exhibition, Tate teams, led by Tony Guillan who will speak both at WAM16 and Museum Rocket, decided to associate a new sense to abstract paintings: as these are very often the most complicated to explain, taste, smell and hearing could provide a new view on those exhibits by creating an new emotion. By choosing 5 artworks that create misunderstandings and frustrations for the visitors, Tate made this exhibition all about allowing them to feel the art without having to rely on scientific information. Cartels where replaced with experience that did not need seen to be enjoyed, so the visitors could use both their view and another sense at the same time. Smells and sounds were associated in addition to touch. For example, a Bacon painting could be associated with a smell and some food, and the visitors could touch objects from painting that were rebuilt thanks to haptic technology.
When exiting the exhibition - that attracted 71% of first time visitors - people talked a lot about how the stimuli echoed with their own story and the museum teams noticed that emotions were different depending on were the people came from and in which culture they grew up.
Interestingly enough, this idea of creating an emotion is also what motivated the artists Anne and Patrick Poirier when they were given a room in an ancient biscuit factory in Nantes (France) and decided to recreate the exact smell of biscuit, bringing back memories of the visitors.
Reviving memories is only part of the effect Belle Haleine (Tinguely museum, Basel, 2015) had on visitors. This exhibitions was all about smells. Smells that make one uncomfortable (strong sweat, for example), smells that make you travel (spices) or smells that not everyone can smell (20% of the population can’t smell pheromones!). But the exhibition also showcased art by artists like John Baldessari, Louise Bourgeois of Marcel Duchamp (who inspired the title Belle Haleine) who didn’t necessarily work with smell, but created art that evokes a smell.
The link between masterpieces from art history and our senses also got explored in 2053: A living museum, an event that took place last February at Tate Liverpool. Imagine it is 2053 and most of the art we know today has vanished. The same way some characters remember books in Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and tell their stories to younger generations, some people could preserve the memory of lost artworks. During two days, an army of people - dancers, musicians, speakers - would tell visitors about absent exhibits, showing how important the ideas of transmission and memory still are.
A beautiful way to create an unfortunate world where artworks no longer exist but still find a way to survive.
What we learn from these exhibitions is the ability to engage an audience in a stronger and more intimate way by appealing to more senses than just the sight. Not only do such sensory experiences attract new curious visitors, they also make them more likely to come back thanks to the mark they leave on them. Whether with your one material, with brand new material or with content you create with external actors, multisensory exhibitions are a beautiful way to make the audience feel engaged in their museum experience, and therefore create a stronger bond than by just having them look at art and read labels.