• Susan Ward

Integrating the Senses Into Museum Visits

Sounds, textures, smells. What can museums add to the visitor experienc?
Sensory experiences improve museum visits

Too few museums integrate multiple senses into the regular museum visit. However, by increasing the sensory experiences, visitors mental wellness will be increased, along with an improvement in their overall visitor experience.

The Massachusetts Health Blog states, "Intentionally engaging our five senses – hearing, touch, smell, taste, and sight – are incredibly powerful tools in providing instant relief in a hectic world." (Relax With the Help of Your 5 Senses) Most museums engage two main senses -- sight (looking at art or labels) and hearing (tour guides, music, or audio snippets). But what about touch, smell, and taste? And, can sight and hearing be enhanced?

Learning labs and education rooms tend to integrate more senses, often including touch through drawing, games, building, and more. But what about the visitor experience when it comes to the individual, couple, friends, or family who are not participating an any additional activities. They're either meandering through your museums or historic site at their own pace or they're part of a guided tour. What might you add that would both improve the overall visitor experience, and also build visitors' mental wellness?

Try These!

Art museums...

  • Near an Italian painting of an 18th-century aristocratic gentleman, have pieces of cut velvet and satin for visitors to touch.

  • Near an American Arts and Crafts dresser, have a piece of unfinished oak and a piece of waxed oak, or a piece of white oak and a piece of red oak, for visitors to feel and examine.

  • Near a 19th-century watercolor of a market in Algiers, find a way to provide North African spices to be smelled, or better yet, tasted!

  • Near a massive bell from a 17th-century Japanese monastery, play sounds the go with the bell. Or, put out bells of different sizes so that visitors can experiment with the sounds associated with different bells.

Historic sites...

  • Have tour guides carry small bags with scented candles, textured textiles, or wood samples that they can integrate into the visitor tour experience.

  • Welcome visitors to your site with background music that fits the history, culture, and stories that relate to your site.

  • End your tours with a tiny mint or candy or cookie that reflects the era or recipes of your historic house or site.

  • Have one small table before the beginning or end of visit where guests can examine reproductions or modern approximations of fabric, furniture, metalware, or art that's exhibited at your site. Change this table monthly or quarterly so that when visitors return they have new experiences with new senses involved in their visit.

Botanical gardens...

  • Expand visitors sense of sight by displaying images of what the gardens look like a different seasons.

  • Are there flowers that visitors can safely eat? Add labels to suggest what they might try.

  • Do different parts of your gardens reflect different cultures? Might you integrate sound into those spaces? Wind chimes? Bells? Rain sticks? A sound system that plays background music?

  • How are the plants, shrubs, and trees in your botanical garden utilized in daily life. Might you show an example of what an oak tree looks like when turned into a bookend? Could you display a piece of silk that visitors can handle that sits near a silk plant?

History museums...

  • Are there any writers or poets connected to your history museum? Provide opportunities for visitors to hear the writings read out loud. Have the tour guide read a poem during the tour. Create a way that visitors can record themselves reading a journal entry. Add the reading of a historical letter to an exhibit or audio tour.

  • Is there a recipe related to your history museum? Provide a print out of the recipe for visitors to take with them that they can see. Is there a spice in the recipe that you can give visitors a chance to smell? Is there an unusual dry ingredient that visitors can feel?

Art galleries...

  • Think like the Robert Lange Studio in Charleston, South Carolina. This attractive art gallery provides free bookmarks for visitors to take with them, adding a visual and tactile element to the visit.

  • Upstairs, the gallery has a heavy wooden table covered with small to medium sized stones so that visitors can create their own rune, a participatory activity that involves touch, sound, and sight.

  • Near the entrance, the gallery has a swing available for any visitor to sit, relax, and swing. This activity adds to the senses of feeling, seeing, and hearing.

Reading these suggestions will bring up worries and concerns about preservation issues. We can't have food in the galleries! What if someone uses a sample piece of wood to damage a historic object? Questions of funding will come up, too. We don't have money to install a new sound system! How much would it cost to feed every visitor a cookie made from a historic recipe? These tips won't work for every site. However, if your goal is to improve the visitor experience, while building visitors mental wellness, most likely there's one small change that you can add with some creative thought and planning.

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