We had been in the exhibition a while before I thought to double back to the entrance and inspect what I’d missed: the caramel-colored hand pump bottle, sitting proudly on a tall white sculpture pedestal. What was this? Pushing myself to interact with the bottle rather than first read its label, I squirted some cool, viscous mixture into my hand and then extended my hand to my husband, David. He took a deep whiff before promptly backing away from me and shaking his head. “Wow. What does it smell like?” I asked, amused. “It’s really strong…” he paused. “Hmmm. It’s like if you took a sip of vodka when you thought it might be water.”
This “ritual cleanse” (I did read the label in the end) was just one stop on our visit to The Senses: Design Beyond Vision, on view at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum through October 28. The exhibition features more than 65 design projects and more than 40 objects and installations dedicated to – as the exhibition’s entrance sign spells out in a bold, goldenrod headliner – the senses from a to z.
What were the other stops? Among them: a wall of thick, plush synthetic fur that plays different tones and notes depending on where you touch it, so that curious visitors create a collective orchestra. Chairs and headphones that together stimulate the sounds and sensations of random, improbable events described in projections on the floor at your feet (“falling backwards into a tub of Jell-O;” “an avalanche of frozen peas.”) Interactive stations playing original music compositions inspired by our taste of sweet, salty, sour, and bitter.
Contemporary museums – and particularly, art museums – are organized around vision. As students and I discuss in ARAD’s Access and the Arts seminar, it wasn’t always this way. The earliest museums encouraged touch, believing it a valuable way for the elites who visited to experience artifacts on view. By the mid-nineteenth century, an array of factors – including, most significantly, the rise in museums’ public access – created the museum of sight we today take for granted. While many have debated the limits of the “look, don’t touch” model, lately there has been increasing scholarly and professional interest in what Nina Levent and Alvaro Pascual-Leone have called “the multi-sensory museum.” This shift has been catalyzed in large part by increased attention to museum accessibility: efforts to break down barriers to promote participation for all visitors, regardless of ability. As the introductory wall text for Design Beyond Vision highlights, sensory design is physical, it enhances experience, and importantly, when done well, it is inclusive: “By activating multiple senses, designers embrace users with different needs.” In this way, multi-sensory exhibition design can challenge museums’ sensory hierarchies: the social orders through which people privilege particular forms of sensory experience over others.
At the Cooper Hewitt, I was thinking about sensory hierarchies in the context of my teaching and research. But I was also moved by the show as a visitor. As someone without a sense of smell, I’m often struck by how difficult it is for people to describe smells to me; sometimes they lack words completely. I don’t always think about my anosmia when visiting museums. However, wandering around The Senses: Design Beyond Vision I thought about it quite a bit, mainly because the show gave me ways to think about smell beyond museum walls. I spent time with scent wheels categorizing aromas and relating smell to color; sculptures pairing wafted smells with distinct textures; and a “smell map” of Amsterdam plotting out the association of smells not just with fragrance, but with memories. As we left, David commented how the show’s focus on synesthesia – the sensation of a sense stimulated by another sense – got him inspired to describe smells in ways that rely on sight, sound, and even simile. “It’s really strong” didn’t mean much to me. But I understood how much it might knock you out to take a sip of vodka when you thought it was water. In this way, the exhibition gave us new ways to think, talk about, and share our experiences of the world: in short, it did well what museums do best.