Sensing Awry: Designing Multimedia Exhibitions

Edwin van der Heide, BIAS Sound Art Exhibition Taipei 2005  

This past Saturday I had the pleasure of chairing a panel at the Mulimodal Approaches to Learning conference at the Metropolitan Museum. The panelists included Jim Drobnick, Associate Professor of Contemporary Art and Theory, Ontario College of Art and Design; Johannes Goebel, Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center (EMPAC); Siegfried Saerberg, Curator and Professor of Sociology and Disability Studies, Germany; and John Weber, Dayton Director, Frances Young Tang Teaching Museum and Art Gallery. I attempted to take notes, although I wasn’t always fast enough to record who said what.

Johannes Goebel, who has extensive experience with sound installations, began by addressing the challenges particular to sound exhibitions: sound goes everywhere; it leaks into adjacent installations. Yet one common technological solution to this “problem” — encouraging visitors to use headphones — is socially awkward.

Goebel also pointed out that designing exhibitions to be multisensory — to engage as many senses as possible — isn’t always advantageous, because it runs the risk of Disney-fying the experience.

He picked up on the theme of temporality that was woven throughout the preceding panel on Sound Art. Goebel noted that different media have different time scales; visitors’ average “dwell time” for a painting is estimated to be anywhere between 8 and 15 seconds, while their engagement with sound art tends to last longer. How to integrate these different time scales into a multimedia exhibition?

When we think of “multisensory” experiences, we typically think of those that engage the five senses — but Jim Drobnick pointed out that some theorists and scientists have counted up to 17 senses. Our temporal sense is one that isn’t commonly accounted for in exhibition design. He says that exhibition designers and curators face myriad challenges in their attempts to appeal to these various senses. One set of challenges resides in the institution: the museum or gallery. We have to contend with HVAC systems, with ubiquitous deodorization, with the fact that open plans and permeable walls promote the intermixing of senses. Exhibition designers are commonly left to convey different senses through different technologies. The ephemeral senses present additional challenges of documentation: how does one record — for historical and teaching purposes — an exhibition of smell or sound? Weber shared Drobnick’s concern with documentation, yet Goebel suggested that “it’s fine that [some] works go away,” that they resist archiving. Any attempt to record, say, a Wooster Group performance, would necessarily pale in comparison to the live event.

The audience presents challenges, too. Drobnick wonders about how to compel people to participate in interactive, multisensory exhibitions; how to pull them out of their uncritical (and often unconscious) adoption of ocularcentric ways of encountering the world; and how to get them to recalibrate their senses, or to use them in different ratios, particularly when they aren’t likely to have either training in “controlled” sensation or a discourse to talk about it. Drobnick advocated, too, that we consider the critical possibilities of designing unpleasant sensation — bad smells, rough textures, etc., — that compel us to question our values and ideologies, including those embodied in our ocularcentrism. Drobnick also said that exhibition designers have to be conscious of visitors’ potential for “smell fatigue” or “smell blindness” — and of the ethical implications of sensory engagement; visitors usually come to a museum or gallery, he said, with particular expectations regarding how they’ll interact with the work on display, and with one another.

Weber and Saerberg both emphasized that it’s not one’s eyes or ears that walk through an exhibition; it’s the entire body. Saerberg, who is blind, noted that blind people, whom we might imagine to engage exhibitions through senses other than sight, are often making mental images of the objects on display through touch. “The eyes are not alone” in sight — neither for the blind nor the sighted; we frequently move around a sculpture in order to size it up, to touch it — with our hands and our eyes. While some museums make special accommodations for disabled visitors — by allowing blind visitors to touch various sculptures, for example, and providing specially trained docents — the sighted, too, Saerberg said, often “long to touch.” This multisensory, kinesthetic engagement with an exhibition, Saerberg said, demonstrates how the exhibition-going subject is necessarily wrapped up in the exhibited object.

Lights for the Blind exhibition, Sydney, 2010

Goebel then noted the difference between two primary ways of thinking about mulitmodality or the multisensory. We can take a museum exhibition and add senses to it; or we can consider an exhibition that is innately multimodal, like an exhibition of interaction design. These two models, he said, require very different exhibitionary infrastructures. Regardless, nearly all of the panelists agreed, that in order to most effectively accommodate exhibitions that engage a variety of senses, the senses should be addressed at the stage of designing the museum or gallery. Acoustics, in particular, Goebel said, has to be addressed up front; it can’t be fixed later.

The panelists closed by considering other challenges and opportunities: Drobnick noted the challenges of exhibiting smell and taste when the entire fragrance and flavoring company is controlled by a handful of major companies who jealously protect their recipes. The proprietary nature of this “raw material” complicates any attempts to integrate smell and taste into the gallery. Finally, Saerberg encouraged all galleries and museums to commission work that is made to be touched and sniffed; heard through an ear pressed up against its surface; interacted with “up-close and personal.”

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