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Film: Use Your Senses Overcoming the Accessibility Paradox

Nynke Feenstra from Leiden University spoke at MuseumNext Indianapolis in September 2015 about the The Inclusive Museum as a physical and intellectual accessible space for people with sensory impairment

Nynke: Thank you for being here today and many thanks to MuseumNext for giving me an opportunity to deliver my paper here today.

The inclusive museum is the physical and intellectual accessible place for people with sensory impairments. Nowadays, more and more museums design programs for visitors with special needs. For example, guided tours and sign language for the deaf and touch tours or art making workshops for the blind and partially sighted. Although I encourage these initiatives, they seem paradoxical. An accessible inclusive museum is not attaching labels like blind, deaf or not impaired to people. But in order to create an accessible museum, it is necessary to set apart the blind or the deaf and look at the special needs of a particular group. I refer to this as the accessibility paradox.

The inclusive museum overcomes this paradox by embedding accessibility in its collection presentation to a multisensory presentation of the artworks. In the research I conducted, insight from cognitive neuro-scientists and the work of several artists that attribute a role to the senses in their art provided insight in the different qualities of touch, taste and smell and how they can be used in a museum space. Today, I will show you some possibilities to include touch, taste and smell sensations in the presentation of art and show that such a presentation is not only beneficial to blind or deaf visitors but to everyone.

According to insight from cognitive neuro-scientists, every museum visit is in essence multi-sensory because all experiences that we have are embodied. This is referred to as the concept of embodied cognition. Our body processes information through different senses – sight, hearing, touch, taste and smell. These intertwined sensory inputs contribute to show us a unified image of the world and to experience ourselves within it. Besides these external sensory inputs, our experience is modulated by previous knowledge, understanding and internal predictions and expectations. When we visit a museum or perceive a work of art, it is in a sense that we are embodied visitors. Experiences in museums automatically engage all the senses.

A few weeks ago, my embodied nature was revealed to me very clearly when I visited an exhibition of Gareth Moore in Stroom in The Hague. The exhibition showed installations of Moore about sound without sound necessarily being present. Standing in front of one cage, I saw objects from daily life like a box of cereals, a can of beans and a blower covered with a piece of fabric with little bells at the bottom. The objects are aesthetically compelled against the background painted with squid ink. It was up to me to imagine the sound the objects may produce and to look for relationships between the instruments. I imagined the sound of a shelf of boxes of cereals and the sound of the little bells activated by the blower. Also, I imagined the soft sensations of the blower on my skin, the smell of beans in a can you just opened and the taste of milk with cereals. I realised the only reason I could imagine a sound is because of my memory of previous sensory experience.

Because of our embodied nature, art historian Nina Levent and neurologist Alvaro Pascual-Leone argue that creators should aim at creating exhibitions that invite visitors to use and interpret different senses. As all senses are necessarily involved in experience, it is better to achieve desired effects stimulating all the senses than allowing potentially undesirable effects by ignoring some. Since the 1970s, touch is not uncommon in museums any more [unintelligible 00:04:56] touch tours and hands on workshops. Due to technological developments, touch screens, tablets and 3D replicas of artworks were brought into the museum. With the sense of touch and several other bodily sensations, namely proprioception, the vestibular sense and visceral sensations.

Through proprioception, you know where your body is or you sense that your body is moving without necessarily looking at it. The vestibular sense informs us about a position in relation to gravity, for example, if you stand upright or tilted because you’re bent over to look at an artwork more closely. Visceral sensations are the processes in your internal organs like the changes of your breath volume caused by accelerated breathing because you’re affected by an artwork. These bodily senses are also part of your embodied experience.

The main qualities of the sense of smell are that sense can activate unconscious effects, trigger powerful emotions and bring back memories vividly or memories that seemed forgotten. The perception of a scent is not universal. We all have our individual smelling history, a unique set of receptors to detect scents. These derive from culture because we are exposed to different scents in the environment like herbs, foods or perfumes and from genetic information. Therefore you and I may perceive the same scent differently. However, there are scents that are likely to trigger the same effect in most perceivers like vanilla is pleasant and lavender is calming.

The sense of taste is considered to be the most [close] sense since the taste sensation is only possible through direct physical contact. Most of the time, we do not perceive pure taste, there’s combinations of taste, touch and smell sensations. Your taste experience depends on the context of your body and senses like the disposition to eat and cultural factors such as religion, education, ethics, experience and tradition. Occupational therapist Carol Bowlby defined a specific sequence of [sensory] stimulations, namely smell, movement, touch, vision, hearing and taste. According to this model, the sense of smell is first stimulated because this is the most primitive sense and strongly attached to emotions. Movement as second helps improve alertness. Following this, touch, vision and hearing should be used because these senses are more complex and require more time for interpretation. At last, a taste sensation should be triggered because the [unintelligible 00:08:01] sense is perceived as rewarding. Although the sequence is normally used in activities for people with physical or mental problems like dementia, I believe the sequence is also useful for creators to rely on because the sequence is derived from the qualities of the senses and not its effect on a particular group of people.

In a multisensory presentation of art, creators [curators] or educators can provide a smell stimulus to immerse people in the artwork. Scent can be applied to attract visitors from a distance to the artwork, to surround them with [scents/senses] of a particular culture, to bring back memories or to arouse a particular mood or feeling. For example, creators can use the general effect of a scent to affect visitors’ mood positively, for example make visitors feel at ease using the scent of lavender.   They can use it negatively by triggering aversion to an unpleasant odour in relation to an artwork about war or contrasting, like using a pleasurable scent in relation to an artwork that crosses moral boundaries.

Secondly, creators can provide a touch stimulus, one that includes movement, through a proprioceptive assignment like to copy the shape or position of a sculpture or depicted figure or create a physical touch experience perceived by the hands, feet or skin to examine the materials and tools used to create the artwork. As third stimulus, creators can rely on a traditional experience of viewing an artwork in a museum, a sight stimulus and auditory information or music. Finally, creators provide a taste stimulus to represent a detail in the artwork, culture, religion or tradition. For example, provide a sweet that is sweet and salty to represent a painting’s contrast or a hard sweet that is soft inside or a sweet with the flavour of a typical dish from a depicted culture.

Starting with smell and ending with taste is powerful since these senses are connected to memory most closely. In short, conscious stimulation of the five senses can be used to arouse a particular mood, recall memories, illustrate a particular time or area, represent something or used for an abstract translation of the intrinsic qualities of an artwork. A multisensory presentation in art exhibitions may contribute to a more intimate experience of the works of art and leave a deeper long term memory of the exhibition experience in the visitor.

Visitors with a sensory impairment can choose to experience the artwork by a combination of sensory stimuli that they feel comfortable with. For example, some deaf people orientate themselves primarily by vision [unintelligible] touch or hearing. Besides, a multisensory presentation can reduce the current dominance of sight and hearing in a museum that sensory impaired visitors might experience as uninvited. The interpretation of multiple sensory stimuli will enrich all visitors’ museum experience and create an open space that supports every visitor to have a museum experience that fits his or her expectations. The goal of a multisensory presentation of art is that creators build a multi-layered story with different sorts of information like [art historical], emotional and cultural. For museum visitors, it is possible to experience all the senses or to experience some.

At the end of this presentation, I want to make clear that my intention is not to stop the special programs for deaf and blind people. As there continue to be guided tours and workshops for the elderly, children, hearing and seeing visitors, there should be for the sensory impaired. A multisensory presentation is meant to establish intellectual accessibility on every hour and day that a museum is open to the public and to create an inclusive museum where blind and deaf visitors are a group of visitors but no longer are positioned as a group of impaired visitors.

Currently I am working on [unintelligible] extension of this research into a PhD, therefore I’m really happy to receive feedback on this presentation. If you want to share your ideas, thoughts or difficulties please come to me. I will also attend the conference tomorrow. Are there any questions I can answer now?

Female Voice: Can you give us some examples of the most successful multisensory experiences that you’ve witnessed in museums?

Nynke: So far, this is more like a theory I just developed. I’m just graduated for my Masters and my next step will really be to test this in practice in museums. But I did some programs, for example, I did an assignment for the [unintelligible 00:13:52] Museum in Amsterdam and there we experienced … with Dutch experience, they have 3D replicas of artwork so blind people could really touch it. And what you really get also for the feedback from people is that it really helps make an experience not only descriptive but into an aesthetic experience. I think that’s also really what the neuro-scientist reveals, that by making it more multisensory it becomes a deeper and more real experience. Unfortunately I cannot say I already have experience myself but I’m really eager to go and try that soon.

Female Voice: [unintelligible – no microphone]

Nynke: Thank you. Are there other questions or comments? I’m also happy … I have some time to hear some comments or suggestions.

Male Voice: It’s a comment really that I think museums in and of themselves impair our senses. I’ve always felt that the general museum experience generally suppresses a sense so smell is really important, you very rarely get that added sensation. Light’s another one, light is often reduced to levels for most adults anyway, they find it really difficult to see things in and obviously we’re not allowed to touch things. That’s the first line. But my colleagues at UCL have been doing some work around olfactory senses and the significance that they have. Certainly retailers … I think there’s been a whole thing in the States about Hollister stores using perfumes and so forth to trap people in and that’s caused all sorts of allergies.

But certainly olfactory senses, there’s been some really good exhibitions just around perfume and also in a couple of galleries in the UK, they’ve done historic tours at galleries using again perfume tours so they’re using scents and perfumes from certain periods to bring things to life. So I think it’s an area that’s really worth exploring more. I don’t know what the answers are but I think there’s a frustration, I always feel that, being impaired myself when I walk into a museum space.

Nynke: That’s also why I wanted to explain the concepts of embodied cognition to you extensively because I noticed that since I did this research which I started about six months ago, I’m much more aware of my own senses whenever I’m on the street or in a museum. And that’s just really nice, that’s why I called or entitled my presentation ‘use your senses’ because you’re never necessarily using them but pay attention to them and that will already enrich your experience. Maybe also a funny detail is that I read some neuro-scientific studies about aesthetics and how that works in your brain. And for your brain it doesn’t matter from which sense the impulse comes, we are able to make aesthetic judgements based on information from all the senses which we are only trained and our language is only prepared for making aesthetic judgements mainly based on visual things. Neuro-aesthetics is also a field that is developing now and I think it’s really interesting in the future what that can bring in museums.

Male Voice: I was just going to make one quick comment. The casinos in Las Vegas a few years ago realised that the smoky stale environment was shortening how long people would want to stay in the casinos. So they began pumping out a lot of fresh air, pumping up the amount of oxygen and adding more pleasant scents like lavender to the experience. So the people who know how to make money are probably ahead of us there!

Nynke: Thank you very much.

Nynke Feenstra from Leiden University spoke at MuseumNext Indianapolis in September 2015 about the The Inclusive Museum as a physical and intellectual accessible space for people with sensory impairment.

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