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Multisensory Exhibition Spaces: Connecting Art With Our Senses

In the age of digital media, museums around the world are struggling to attract young and socially diverse audiences. Museums are reshaping their architecture to integrate more natural light, contemplation areas between exhibits as ways to combat museum fatigue, and apps to provide more information on artworks. Another solution might be to create more interactions between the audience’s body and the artworks displayed. While museums are traditionally designed as visual experiences, our brains process information by combining stimulations from all five senses. How can taste, touch, smell and sound influence the way we experience art? Here we explore various sensory approaches to exhibition design.

Author: Siphilele Magagula

Image: Courtesy of GBPhotos

‘Do Not Touch’. These are the infamous words printed in every museum all over the world that separate visitors from the masterpieces contained in glass cases.

Beyond Visual: A New Approach To Exhibition Design

Visiting a museum can be very limiting as most of the experience is visual and is riddled with spoken and unspoken rules: no touching, no getting too close, no loud talking, no food, no taking photographs. There is a disconnection between the work displayed and the visitors, often materialised in a visible barrier prohibiting them from exploring the artwork further. Daniel Bendtsen writes of his experience at the The Wexner Center For Art, describing how the “galleries have all the inviting charm of going through airport security…[police are] at the entrance, there are guards standing sentinel as though they’re Secret Service” and most importantly, “Don’t you dare touch anything!” This kind of environment is uninviting and creates an air of exclusivity in exhibition spaces. If only there was a way to make the museum experience more than just a passive observation of masterpieces from a safe distance. How can we design more interactive and captivating experiences in exhibition spaces?

What The Future of Exhibition Design Looks Like

On the subject of the future of museums, founder of Museum Next and Sumo Design Jim Richardson believes that “The future of museums will be a lot more personalised than the current one-fits-all visitor experience, with technology allowing people with different interests to each have a tailored experience.” Professor Sara Kenderdine, who is professor at UNSW Art & Design in Sydney, Australia, and the director of visualisation for the university's transdisciplinary Expanded Perception and Interaction Centre, echoes these sentiments. Her research is at the forefront of interactive and immersive experiences for exhibition spaces. In her 2014 TEDx Talk, Professor Kenderdine discusses the future of museums and shows examples of projects that merge technologies and interactive design.

Video: courtesy of TED Talks

Some museums have caught on that engaging other senses may be the key to creating a lasting connection with visitors, here are two examples of museums with unique multisensory approaches to exhibition design.

Museum of Food & Drink - Brooklyn, NYC | See, Taste, Touch Smell

This museum is a culinary experience that brings the world of food at your fingertips, where you allowed to taste, touch, smell their exhibits. The goal of their exhibitions is to “inspire public curiosity about food, what it means and how it connects with the world around us”. The museum's MOFAD Lab premiered with an aromatic and enchanting exhibit in 2016 called "Flavor: Making It and Faking It." It's a multi-sensory exhibit that showcased how the flavor industry has separated the natural flavor from food and injected artificial flavors in most of the food that we consume.

Through their edible exhibits the museum educates its visitors on the history, culture and science behind the food, they also walk them through the production and marketing of food items. Visitors are encouraged to expand their palettes by sampling, smelling and feeling their way through the edible exhibits. What better way to learn about the origin and future of food and society than by tasting it?! The museum welcomes people of all walks of life and believe in a fun approach to raise awareness about proper food practices, echoing that “a positive, non-fear-based outlook is the best way to approach food education.”

Images 1, 2, 3: Courtesy of Museum Of Food And Drink | Image 4 - Courtesy of

Tate Sensorium - London,UK | See, Taste, Touch, Smell, Hear

Winner of the 2015 IK Prize, the Tate Sensorium was an immersive multidimensional art display by design collective Flying Object showcased between August - October 2015 It allowed visitors to experience artworks through sound, smells, tastes and more specifically touch - which was achieved by using innovative haptic technology - mid-air haptics, which create three dimensional sensations that can be felt yet not seen. This exhibit pioneered the integration of prolonged mid-air haptics with sounds in a museum setting for an interactive experience. This new tactile approach to experiencing art stimulated visitors’ senses, while triggering both memory and imagination - helping them fully connect with the artworks.

Visitors also got a chance to record and review their physiological responses through various measurement devices - for instance upon arrival at the exhibition visitors received a wristband that recorded biometric information to measure the visitors’ reactions to the various experiences.

For this project, the curators selected four abstract paintings from the Tate’s collection: David Bomberg’s In The Hold’, Francis Bacon’s ‘Figure in a Landscape’, John Latham’s ‘Full Stop’, and Richard Hamilton’s ‘Interior II’. Abstract paintings are often harder to decipher for most as interpretations vary, by adding the sensory component the, Tate Sensorium created more depth to the paintings, enabling visitors to make informed interpretations of each piece.

‘In The Hold’ by David Bomberg 1913-1914. Image courtesy of GBPhotos

In David Bomberg’s In the Hold - layered audio immerses the viewer into the painting. One plane of sound illustrates the acute angles of the painting’s geometry, while the second sound plane of clangs and shouts, depicts the sounds of a ship. Smell is also incorporated into this piece, one smell is described as more abstract and vibrant, highlighting the colour palette and abstract nature of the painting. The first smell is contrasted by the smells of diesel and tobacco - which are said to be reminiscent of smells of a ship in those times.

‘Figure In A Landscape’ by Francis Bacon, 1945. Image courtesy of GBPhotos

Francis Bacon’s Figure In A Landscape has less vibrant colors. The dark grey charcoal piece depicting a weary figure leaning on a seat in Hyde Park gives off a heavy, sombre atmosphere, reflecting the war time it was created in. Edible chocolate, sea salt and cacao nibs developed by master chocolatier and food inventor Paul A. Young lend to the dark and textured nature of the artwork. The gritty texture of the edible charcoal and sea salt are said to reinforce the harshness of the war time. The audio - bustling sounds of a busy city, with sounds of construction evoking the impression of furious activity contrasted by the laughter of children - bringing life and a lighter note to the otherwise dark painting. The warm light surrounding the viewer also helps balance the darkness of the painting.

‘Full Stop’ by John Latham, 1961. Image courtesy of GBPhotos.

John Latham’s Full Stop is essentially a large dark sphere on a white background. The accompanying audio serves to emphasize the black and white of the painting with the sharp sound of roars and clanging bells contrasted by the calming sounds of rainfall. Using ultrasound, the Ultrahaptics device simulates the feeling of touch similar to air pressure on the hand as it hovers mid-air - this sensation mirrors the porous nature of the full stop’s spray paint texture.

’Interior II’ by Richard Hamilton, 1964. Image courtesy of GBPhotos

Smell is the dominant sense in the depiction of Richard Hamilton’s Interior II. The scents by expert “Odette Toilette” are reminiscent of the smells of a mid-century home. Here the odours of hairspray and domestic noises transport the viewer into the setting of the painting. This stimuli heightens the experience of the piece and brings the central character to life. Hints of glue and the sound of paper are added as homage to the artist’s collage process.

On leaving the exhibition, which attracted 71% first time visitors, people were invited to explore the rest of the gallery using the theme of sensory stimulation as a guide. People reportedly emphasized how the stimuli echoed with their own story, while museum personnel noticed that emotions were different depending on where the visitors came from and in which culture they grew up.

A take away from these immersive museum experiences is the ability to engage a wider audience in a stronger and more intimate way by appealing to more senses than just the sight. These sensory experiences allow visitors to better understand art and concepts through the senses which evoke emotion and imagination, further connecting them to the artwork. Multisensory exhibitions are a successful way to make the audience feel like an integral part of the museum experience, rather than restricted observers quietly inspecting art from a safe distance.

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