Museums which engage the senses

The museums I remember from my early childhood are the ones that best engaged my senses. My early childhood was spent in South Australia, and the museums I clearly remember visiting were the South Australian Maritime Museum and the South Australian Museum. Both museums were visited during school excursions and both gave me a lifelong love of museums – all types of museums.

A focus on multi-sensory experience has emerged to be a pathway for museums to communicate the past:

New developments in museum practice are disrupting conventional notions of the museum as a silent and still site of purely visual display. (Concordia Sensoria Research Team, Concordia University, Montreal)

An interest in providing interactivity has led to a re-evaluation of the senses, and some really exciting innovations. Museums are moving away from being the temple of the ‘aesthetic artefact’ and a place for the community, which is a big part of new museology (See: Dean 2003: 30).

Museums, it seems, have become altogether more accessible—the old atmosphere of exclusiveness and intellectual asceticism has largely given way to a more democratic climate. (Ross 2004: 85)

A really fascinating book I’ve just come across looks at the ‘sensorial dimensions’ of Indigenous artefacts and the way that different cultures engage their senses. It’s called Sensible Objects: Colonialism, Museums and Material Culture (ref below).

Museums which can engage one sense very strongly, or more than one sense at a time, stay in people’s memories and-anecdotally-appear to have had a profound effect on people. When I’ve asked people about school trips to museums, very often they’ll describe the smell of a museum (using negative terms like musty, damp, dusty, stale, but never saying them in a negative way) or the way it was lit or they’ll describe getting to hold something old or heavy. When I think back to the museums which engaged my senses as a child or adult, I can picture standing there so clearly – much more clearly than I could remember a traditional museum.

In this post, I want to introduce some museums which use the senses. In the first section, I’ll focus on a museum which has created a ‘smellscape‘ as well as a landscape – Jorvik Viking Centre, and point out a study done on cognitive recall and smell which actually used Jorvik as its experiment. I’ll give some brief examples of how texture and lighting have been used in some museums I’ve visited, and finish up by writing about a really inspirational project I came across while visiting the Vasa Museum in Stockholm-the ‘Salutogenic‘ museum.

Smell–Jorvik Viking Centre

The Jorvik Viking Centre in York, which opened in 1984 and has become one of the most popular museums in the UK, draws upon multi-sensory display events in order to convey a sense of place, and has used archaeological evidence to build up this layered picture of the past. The decision to use the senses was taken early on in the development of the museum:

The Trust decided to rely on the same modes of sensory input that ordinary people depend on when visiting any new city: their eyes, their ears, and their nostrils. (Addyman 2001: 259)

The ‘dark ride’, an automated journey through reconstructed 10th century Jorvik, combines movement, sight, sound and smell. Visitors sit in small cars (think of a roller coaster) and listen to audio about where they are, what they are seeing and guiding the interpretation. The audio is available in different languages, and has an English guide for adults and a separate one for children. The audio feed for children, interestingly, allows you to focus much more on the surroundings and experience daily life more than the feed for adults, which is more direct in communicating information. Both are very accessible as a requirement of having a very diverse, even non-museum going visitor profile.

The guidebook even has a smells map, helping to create a smellscape:

Map of Jorvik including smells key. Photo credit: Jorvik Viking Centre website. It can also be found in the guidebook: 20-21.
Map of Jorvik including smells key. Photo credit: Jorvik Viking Centre website. It can also be found in the guidebook: 20-21.

The Jorvik Viking Centre create their unique ‘Viking Age smell’ by pumping a combination of seven smells through the dark ride area. These smells are named:

  • burnt wood,
  • apples,
  • rubbish acrid,
  • beef,
  • fish market,
  • rope/tar, and
  • earthy

A 1999 study into the effectiveness of smell as a contextual retrieval cue used the Jorvik Viking Centre as a site for their experiment. Aggleton and Waskett (1999) studied the extent to which re-exposure to a unique combination of odours, such as those used at Jorvik, could increase the recall ability of an earlier visit to the museum. Three groups of fifteen people who had visited the Jorvik Viking Centre in the past were asked to complete a questionnaire twice, once in the presence of Jorvik smells and once in the presence of a control set of odours. The third group were not given any odours. The mean elapsed time since last visit to the museum ranged between 6.0 and 7.3 years for the three groups.

Participants in the study were asked questions about aspects of Viking Age life which visitors to the museum would have been exposed to. The questions were designed with the help of staff from Jorvik. The results of the study revealed that the presence of the same combination of smells, or ‘odour cues’ as experienced at Jorvik did aid in the recall of information and induced ‘a highly significant improvement in recall of the museum’s contents’ (Aggleton and Waskett 1999: 5).

Texture and lighting in display

Dappled sunlight at The Rocks Discovery Museum, The Rocks, Sydney
Dappled sunlight at The Rocks Discovery Museum, The Rocks, Sydney

Next week I will be doing an archaeological/museological review of The Rocks Discovery Museum in Sydney, Australia, but this week I wanted to highlight their fantastic use of lighting. They’ve been able to use the brilliant Australian sunlight by having large windows covered with either ocean or woodland opaque pictures, which dapple and diffuse the light while emphasising the link with the landscape.

Information panel on sail material - using the textures of the material culture to help tell the story
Information panel on sail material – using the textures of the material culture to help tell the story

On the other side of the world, the Historic Dockyard in Portsmouth houses many museums of varying quality and focus, but one part in particular used texture very effectively. An exhibition in Boathouse No. 7 on the mechanisation of shipbuilding used sail material to print the information rather than a flat panel. It highlighted the use of materials in a very simple way and was visual and provided texture. Unfortunately only the first panel was printed onto fabric but maybe the others are a work in progress.

The ‘salutogenic’ museum

A major benefit which comes from playing with the senses of visitors in a museum is that people with different needs may find enjoyment in a more engaging way. A visually impaired visitor may enjoy the manipulation of sound or focus on texture and smell, for example.

The Salutogenic Museum is an education project being pioneered by the Vasa Museum in Stockholm. Kulttuuria kaikille (Culture for all) explains that the goal of the project is:

…to make it possible for children and young people, regardless of their actual abilities, to benefit from, enjoy and take active part in the educational activities on an equal and dignified footing.

The project seeks to inspire museum professionals to see accessibility as a great opportunity. Different display techniques and creative approaches ensure that people can get the most out of museums and learning. It could lead to some truly innovative means of communication of complex past cultures, events and concepts which will benefit everyone.

In a room at the Vasa Museum, children can engage with various types of material culture and historical themes.

Three different themes are addressed: sailing a ship, life onboard and marine archaeology. Children can, for example, try working with the sails, navigating, making ropes, searching for and conserving archaeological finds, games, food, health, etc. (Kulttuuria kaikille)

Engaging different senses like touching the sail materials and rope, feeling the weight of objects, smelling the food, rope and tar would provide a memorable experience for children with varying abilities, and the wider public as well.


Next week: an archaeological/museological review of The Rocks Discovery Museum, The Rocks, Sydney

Works cited

AGGLETON, J. P. & WASKETT, L. 1999. The ability of odours to serve as state-dependent cues for real-world memories: Can Viking smells aid the recall of Viking experiences? British Journal of Psychology, 90, 1-7.

DEAN, D. 2003. Museum Exhibition: Theory and Practice, Abingdon, Routledge.

EDWARDS, E., GOSDEN, C. & PHILLIPS, R. 2006. Sensible Objects: Colonialism, Museums and Material Culture, Bloomsbury Academic.

ROSS, M. 2004. Interpreting the new museology. Museum and society, 2, 84-103.

links in-text for websites and museums


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