Immersion, the Senses, and Embodied Experiences
Lesley Kadish —Lesley Kadish was born a redhead in summer in Texas and migrated north at eighteen to avoid further sunburn. After graduating with a degree in historic archaeology from Grinnell College, she once again found herself at the mercy of the sun when she accepted her first job in digital cartography for the Museum of Northern Arizona. In subsequent years, she has worked as a curator for the Minnesota Historical Society, a digital project lead for the Espoo City Museum in Finland, and currently as a Fellow in the Smithsonian Accessibility Program, and a researcher with Georgetown University’s Center for New Designs in Learning and Scholarship (CNDLS). Lesley’s most current work evokes this body knowledge to theorize and explore multi-sensory learning in museums. Despite splitting her vacation time between Minnesota and Finland, Lesley continues to find a way to get a sunburn. And she is always in search of her elusive Texas heritage.
Ed Rodley — Ed Rodley is one of the original CODE|WORDS conspirators and worked in museums since he was eleven. He is currently Associate Director of Integrated Media at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, MA, where he manages a wide range of digital media projects. Prior to that he was senior Exhibit Developer at the Museum of Science, Boston. During his career, he has developed major exhibitions on the Soviet space program, Leonardo da Vinci, Egyptian archaeology and Star Wars. He’s developed audio tours, multimedia tours, websites, and contributed to books like CODE | WORDS: Technology and Theory in the Museum and Mobile Apps for Museums: The AAM Guide to Planning and Strategy. He blogs on museum topics at Thinking About Museums. Ed’s current interests include taking a philosophical can opener to museums’ approaches to content creation, exploring multisensory approaches to museum experiences, and storytelling in the digital age with all its new affordances and constraints.
The Initial Prompt
“Immersion” is one of those words that gets used a lot, and can be difficult to pin down. The idea of feeling completely engulfed by an environment is a powerful one for experience designers, and the benefits of immersion and learning outcomes is well-studied.
This month, Lesley and Ed discuss their interest in multisensory experiences in museums. Lesley and Ed were introduced after Lesley’s fascinating “Digital Accessibility and the Senses” session at MCN2015. Both are interested in the complex interplay of simultaneous sensory input, the embodied experience of the senses, and of immersion.
Our Correspondence (as it evolves)…
ponderings to begin
Lesley to Ed, Jan 21, 2016
Moving things around in the house of mind. Back burner moves forward. And time opens to put together the previously discussed conversation thread… It was begun right after our talk, as you can see below.
So we just had an introduction conversation (really nice to meet you) and it turns out we both have degrees in anthropology and historic archaeology. You were like, “ya, there’s lots of us hidden around.” That got me thinking about the framework that sort of secretly shores our work. This combination of material culture (USABLE materiality), archives, (touchable, waterlogged, stinky, handwritten) and the natural ELEMENTS (from over-air conditioned special collections rooms, to dirt in the mouth excavations.)
I believe you said you worked with Eastern water people (ship builders and whalesmen?). My people were the desert dwellers…I worked in Hopiland and Salt Lake City. And the historic folks I researched (19th century Latter-Day Saint missionaries) lived in these same places as me, many years before. They were also Easterners, which made them completely out of their element in the desert; they were starving, devoted, and awkwardly reliant on their native Hopi “hosts”.
Researching their life’s work meant understanding their purpose and their resolve. And doing that meant I had to picture these men walking on rock mesas in frozen Cincinnati leather shoes. It meant considering what songs they had in their head during boredom, or what smells could have made them tear up in longing for a hot dinner. The landscape, their handwriting, the actual weather…. it all mattered to me. They could not have imagined a lady redhead would be peering back into the archives of their lives, but they certainly considered themselves history makers.That’s what I love about historic archaeology: this tension between self-conscious expression & unintentional autobiography. Writing this, i’m thinking, historic archaeology also was so much about the body. Including the imagined body of the historical person, and the body of the researcher. And it was also full of imagination.
In our call, you talked about immersion, especially as it related to making exhibitions like the wonderful boat/painting room. Immersion expands with imagination and the senses.
I’m curious, how has your own background impacted your bodily experience of the senses, of imagination, and of immersion? What works have inspired you? And what do these lovely words, imagination, immersion, and senses, point to in your thinking? I’d like to talk and think about a practical application where they are engaged. I want to drill down into what makes these things so compelling. Maybe an exhibition we can each visit and muse on together. Interested?
I hope this finds you well!
JetBlue 278 BOS->LAX
Ed to Lesley, Jan 22, 2016
What a great surprise to find in my email this morning! I’m stuck on a plane heading for LA, and deep in that dissociated state of being neither here nor there. I too enjoyed our initial conversation so much! I’ll have to thank Don Undeen for giving me the hard sell to go to your session at MCN.
I’ve often wondered about what’s behind the number of archaeologists who go into museum work. It’d be an interesting study (for somebody who’s not me) to undertake. There are the obvious reasons; like lack of positions, the generally dismal state of being a modern academic, and the desire to not live in your car forever and be able to go to the doctor occasionally if needed. But I think there is something to the idea that archaeologists, by inclination, are very materially focused, determined sleuths, and embodied practitioners in a way that make them well-suited to museum work. I still know the way that earthenware sherds taste different than stoneware. I want to touch everything, and smell it.
The other trait I’d add to your list, though, is that to even consider a career in archaeology you have to be comfortable knowing you’ll always have an incomplete picture and be happy to live in the lacunae.
It’s kind of appropriate for me to be writing this from a plane, because “my people” as you called them were 17th and 18th Atlantic sailors, transient folk who left little behind except in worst case scenarios. The idea of being intimately familiar with and completely unable to survive in one’s environment (Swimming was a skill rarely taught until the 19th c and most sailors of the period couldn’t) never fails to haul me up short when I imagine my people. And working underwater requires you to be familiar with your own body in a way that you don’t have to be on land. Am I breathing too hard? Can I finish this before I run out my tank? Where’s my buddy? What’s she doing? It requires presence.
There’s also a tremendous physical powerlessness to working underwater, where even a moderate current can make it difficult to stay in one place, let alone work. This powerlessness also resonates with my people. My sailors were all selling their bodies in return for wages. The work was hard, the wages terrible, and the conditions appalling. And the system was stacked against them in so many ways that it’s no wonder that some of them slit their captains’ throats and raised the black flag. We owe the term “strike” as a labor stoppage to the London sailors who struck the sails on their ships in 1768 and brought London’s commerce to a halt to protest working conditions and wages. So, in many ways, their archaeological record is slanted towards oppression, disaster, and death. Which is only a small slice of their lived experience. Are you familiar with Auden’s poem, “Archaeology”? I’ve always loved the coda at the end of the poem.
one moral, at least, may be drawn,
to wit, that all
our school text-books lie.
What they call History
is nothing to vaunt of,
being made, as it is,
by the criminal in us:
goodness is timeless.”
The whole poem gets at the essence of what I think I’m aiming for in the immersive experiences I’ve developed and want to develop; being able to immerse the visitor in an unremarkable moment in some other time and/or place. I am reminded of a conversation I had once with Ed Harris (of Harris Matrix fame) about how the way we look at things skews our views. He was talking about site profiles and how we tend to fixate on boundaries, where one deposit ends and another begins. The boundaries may be where something stopped or start, but the deposits, the undifferentiated areas in between, is where the people did most of their living. The boring bits are actually the ones where most of those lives happened. One of the reasons I think our Impressionists’ studio boat worked was that it captured that kind of quotidian air and gave visitors room to extend their senses into the space and learn what they could.
So, how do I think my background has impacted how my embodied experience of the world? Hmm, good question. I can’t pass a building without seeing the bricked up windows, the doors added at a later date. I see the holes where something has been removed, and I want to add it back in. On beaches, my eye goes immediately to the human objects. I can’t help trying to mentally reconstruct the building that stood over a cellar hole, or the ship that rose up around the pile of ballast stones you often find covering the wreck sites of sailing ships of my period.
JetBlue 404 LGB->BOS
Mon, Jan 25, 2016
I was having drinks with a colleague and former intern last week, and was reminded of a project that has a lot to do with how I think of of immersion. So, forgive me while I segue into Col. Francis Thompson Colby’s gun room which exists in reconstructed form at the Museum of Science, Boston. The Colonel (1882–1953) was quite a character. I find it impossible to research people without coming to love or hate them, and Francis Colby, “Frannie” to his few friends, was an eccentric I came to feel quite close to. He had a privileged upbringing in Boston; the right schools, Harvard (of course), and then law. He tasted the outdoor life, and never lost his taste for it. In the early days of World War I, he raised money from his friends and social circle and went to Belgium and started his own ambulance company. By war’s end, he served with seven armies, won bunches of medals, and become an officer in the U.S. Army. Army life took him all over, but East Africa was his soul’s home, it seems. He made frequent hunting trips for the rest of his adult life, until WWII brought him back into active service. After the war, he returned to the Boston area, and furnished his home with a lifetime’s worth of souvenirs of his military and hunting career. Frannie was a collector and amateur photographer and filmmaker, too.
He was also an only child from a small family with few relatives, and fewer friends, and in classic Yankee style, very close about his affairs and money. When he died in 1953, the Museum of Science received a surprise; a gigantic bequest, with the stipulation that his trophy room had to be preserved at the Museum. He’d talked with the Director of the Museum a few times, and hinted that he was thinking of making a bequest, but nothing specific. The Museum dutifully packed up all the Colonel’s stuff and brought it down to Boston and painstakingly reconstructed the room where it still stands. It’s packed with unlabelled, unmarked, and unknown trinkets. His WWI photo albums alone probably comprise 2–3,000 images. When you’re standing inside, the room is thick with ghosts that refuse to speak.
Have I recommended Susan Stewart’s “On Longing?” It’s a fabulous philosophical examination of the role souvenirs and collections play. Beautifully written stuff, with a ton of food for thought for people who work with objects. One subject she touches on throughout the book is the innate “foreignness” of objects to our experience of living, which is what I think the French charmingly refer to as “the malice of objects.” “The experience of the object lies outside the body’s experience — it is saturated with meanings that will never be fully revealed to us.” A central feature of museums is precisely this phenomenon, the display of objects that are foreign and opaque to us without the intervention of narrative. Stewart says, “Although the transcendence of such objects allows them to endure beyond flux and history, that very transcendence also links such objects to the world of the dead, the end of organic growth and the beginning of inaccessibility to the living.” Inaccessible, indeed!
One of the many trophies in the room is a damaged road sign that reads “Dixmuide 7k, 5h”. From the albums, and Colby’s known movements, it seems clear that he was around Diksmuide in 1915, and probably picked up the sign on one of the roads leading into the bombed-out town. Diksmuide was flattened by the end of the war, and the albums are full of candid snaps of rubble-strewn streets, jaunty officers with riding crops and mustaches, and nothing to tie them into a narrative. One of the best points I took away from Stewart was her description of the role of the souvenir and it’s proxy status for something incapable of being captured. “[W]e need and desire souvenirs of events that are reportable, events whose materiality has escaped us, events that thereby exist only through the invention of narrative.”
I can imagine that for Colby, that Dixmuide sign stood in for being a young officer in a great army engaged in a titanic conflict, the feeling of boots in mud, the smell of burnt houses and dead horses, the bending over and touching cold metal, rough with shrapnel holes, the sound it being tossed into the ambulance, the color of the sky that day. All the things that couldn’t be captured that he needed to commemorate come to reside in that sign, and by not passing that narrative on, the chain that links the object to the lived experience is irreparably sundered. And we’re left with an object.
So how do you conjure those vanished materialities? That’s what I’m interested in immersive experiences. I want my senses to tell me that story instead of just reading it. I can remember a Roman show from my registrar days that included a simple bowl from the workshop of a C. Clodius Proculus, and the jolt it gave me to see the potter’s thumbprint in the underside and to press my gloved thumb against it and feel that my thumb was bigger than his.
Tell me more about your idea for visiting an exhibition and musing on it? I’m super interested!
Lesley to Ed
Jan 26, 2016
Ed, you MUST be exhausted. I wish y’all Boston had gotten some snow so you could hibernate under the melt too.
Wonderful message; thank you! i’ve read it through a couple times and there are several nuggets i am squirreling out.
There’s good stickyness around “vanished materialities.” As a geographer and GIS mapmaker, I used to trouble about maps in similar ways. GIS, as you know, is traditionally employed to analyze large, tangible things (traffic flow, crop yield, settlement patterns), not small, intangible things (morning light at a tram stop, glances in a grocery store). And so I spent years trying to build and theorize ways to capture the “personalities, emotions, values, and poetics of a place” (cartographer David Bodenhamer’s words). But turns out its HARD to force complex multi-dimensionality of a space (or an object) into a textual, or flat, or traditionally intellectual framework.
-fast forward 2 hours-
I just went back to something i wrote several years ago but never did anything with. It’s about places of wild and unusual heritage. I’ll grab some ideas that have been sitting there on the shelf catching light at certain times of day. And i’ll get back to you with them in relation to the words you sent from the plane. mmmmm feeling hungry now for this material(ity). Thanks for reinvigorating me!
…and re:the idea of visiting the same place and talking/writing after… it is appealing to me because there’s something to push off of; there’s the same visual in our heads. We could take a couple words and visit a place separately and then respond to the cues/words from that exhibit/space. I could see it as the start to a CODE/WORDS conversation.
Hope you’re resting a bit and reading fiction,
Ed to Lesley
Jan 29, 2016
Yeah, vanished materialities are a good thing, and I think there’s something that ties it to immersion; the immateriality of sensory inputs and the physicality of stuff. I’d forgotten all about that conversation with Harris until I was writing you. Amazing what gets lost…
Re the visiting separately and talking: you’re on! Maybe we can figure out a place we’re both likely to visit in the next few months. What’s your travel schedule like? I’m in CA at the end of March, but otherwise staying pretty close to home.
Lesley to Ed
Feb 8, 2016
Ed to Lesley
Feb 10, 2016
Here I am sitting on the train, listening to your message through my headphones and typing on the laptop at one of the central tables in the lower deck of the commuter rail car. To my left, North Station trundles past. To my right, one of the usual characters who ride the train home is laying on the seat next me, incessantly clicking his lips and whistling, sort of like he’s speaking Xhosa. The joys of the empty reverse commute. He’s probably come off the all-night shift at the post office. The conductor has to remind him every time to keep his feet off the seats, but he forgets almost immediately and starts nestling into the seat, like he’s getting ready for bed.
Listening to your voice in my ears I can easily place the rest of you in the seat opposite me, smiling, looking sleepy and drinking your tea while you tell me your thoughts. Having an audio to listen to rather than text is both a treat and a pain. The download is flaky and skips until I go back and start over again. But once my headphones are on and you’re speaking, I’m immersed. The sound of your voice, the background noise, and incidental sounds, all envelope me in a way that letters on a screen don’t. One thing that I am very interested in are the unique characteristics of our sensory apparatus. We are so predominantly visual and language rich when it comes to describing how things look, yet it’s relatively easy to simulate blindness. We are impoverished in our language to describe sound, even though it’s almost impossible to simulate deafness. Why can’t we can’t “listen away” the same way you can “look away”? The correlation between our ability to focus and our ability to ignore is pretty interesting! How many times have you closed your eyes in order to visualize something?
I imagine there’s some evolutionary component to this. Ears are always scanning for sounds of danger, noses are telling you about the environment, while eyes are darting constantly around, focusing on points in space. Our brains stitch together a composite image from the stream of sensory data coming into to our eyes, but it’s a lie that feels real. I’ve thought it deeply symbolic that the spot where our eyes focus is the place we really don’t see, since our optic nerve, not rods and cones, is right at the back of the eyeball. We rapidly shift our focus slightly to fill in that blind spot, but it’s always there. Some senses wash over us and others we consume in tiny, intense bursts.
When I was a wee museum thing, we junior volunteers used to congregate in out of the way places where the grown ups wouldn’t be. For lunch, that meant the stage of the big auditorium that wasn’t often used. We’d go to the cafeteria, get our burgers and then scurry off to the basement and do pre teenish things like read sci fi books, and play games. While I can’t recall the faces of my cohort, I can recall the periphery in great detail; the curtains, the old ceiling lights, the tile and wood of the stage. And I can recall the smell. I *know* what that place smelt like, though I’d be hard put to describe it to you in a way that carried any specificity. Dust, old wood, that museum basement smell of cabinets, specimen jars, taxidermy. I can feel how the heavy stage curtain felt. Forty years later, I can still hear the immense quiet of that empty auditorium and our folding chairs squeaking on the stage.
You mentioned that you were going to LA soon, which gives me an idea. When I was in LA recently, I visited LACMA and think two of the exhibitions there might appeal to you. The Rain Room is up through Apr 24, and there’s a Diana Thater exhibition there through Apr 17. One is very experiential, the other very visual, both immersive. I’ll be back in LA in March, so I could revisit both with our conversation in mind. I would be very interested to hear your thoughts on them.
Lesley to Ed
Mar 23, 2016
Ed to Lesley
Apr 14, 2016
How fascinating that you had such a reaction to the Rain Room! My initial impressions were so different. I felt a kind of schizophrenia the whole time, as though I was having two separate set of reactions simultaneously, and toggled back and forth between them pretty much at will. The energy of being in line to do the Thing, with all the other seekers was energizing and my anticipation mounted with every group that the guards let enter. The educator in me was saddened that nobody was working the line, since it was such a ripe opportunity to engage with a literally captive audience. I had purposely not looked anything up about the room so I was going in as untainted by prior knowledge as possible. And then it was our turn.
And what an “experience” it was. On one level I was floored. A room full of pouring rain, but no puddles on the floor, and no clouds! It was like the artists had distilled and bottled the essence of “rain”. I immediately read the black and white emptiness of the space as the typical container for experiencing contemporary art. I was in an art place and the art was happening all around me, in response to me and my movements. I was no passive observer, but part of it. I felt a sense of agency that most contemporary art denies me. Magical. The obligatory selfie followed. The part I enjoyed the most was trying to link up my exclusion zone with a friend’s, to join my isolation zone to theirs. I spent every second of my allotted time in the space and left regretfully.
On the other level, having the guards usher a group of people into a stark unadorned chamber that was essentially a big shower gave me a moment’s pause. The black plywood walls, the piercing spotlight and the guards at either end yelling instructions at us made it feel a bit like a Cold War spy movie to me. All it needed was barking dogs and someone shouting in Russian or German to be complete. My group fanned out immediately, I think so that we could reach individually experience the effect of the room not raining on us. It made me feel insulated and isolated. To be immersed in something and simultaneously excluded from it was interesting and a little sad. I didn’t feel this nearly as much as others, since I seemed to get rained on quite a bit. Maybe it was the black jacket, I dunno. I do know I got wet. I wished I could get wetter, though. Because that’s what rain does, right?
After listening to your experience and reflecting on my own is it, I realized something. My feeling of being let down by Rain Room was partly a result of a prior experience with not getting rained on one June day in 2013. I’ll tell you about it. It was a changeable day weatherwise. It had been raining but suddenly ceased. The sky was active and busy. Clouds came and went, sun burst forth suddenly. It was stormy and blue sky all at once. Leaving work, I strolled outside along a brick walkway flanked with young trees on either side, leaves drooping under the weight of all the recent rain. As I walked along, the sky did another sudden pivot as clouds vanished and glaring sun jumped out. At that same moment, a wind picked up and shook the trees. For a few seconds I was treated to the strange sight of a bright blue sky covering everything while it rained under all the trees, the drops beautifully backlit by the sunlight. I was standing out in the open and dry, but everything under the normally sheltering trees was getting soaked. The rain in the Rain Room took me back to that afternoon, and I found it wanting. Is that Rain Room’s fault? No. But it still left me a little cold somehow.
I look forward to talking on Monday, and hearing more.
All Best Regards,
Ed to Lesley
May 22, 2016
I’ve been remiss in sending you a final epistle to try to wrap up this long, strange trip we’ve taken. Attached please find my rambling, loopy attempt at a free-form spoken answer to the question of what about immersion attracts us so much as experience designers. I hope it makes sense. I resisted the urge to write it all out and read it to you, since that would’ve defeated the purpose. I hate to listen to myself, so I’m not going to review it. Is this akin to how writing makes you feel?
The nugget I have taken away from our epistolary romance is that I think there are least two kinds of immersive experiences; the full-on simulation kinds like our Impressionist Studio Boat (which is being reconstructed at the Scottish National Gallery in Edinburgh!), and the “increased awareness of your embodied nature” kinds, like the Rain Room. I think both kinds of experience appeal to me because they acknowledge the whole visitor and avoid the “museum visitor as disembodied brain” syndrome that sets up the rational vs the emotional/spiritual.
I’d love to know what new insights you’ve had from our talks.
All Best Regards,
P.S. If you’re interested in the Rodin show I mentioned, here’s a great review from Sebastian Smee.
Lesley to Ed
Jun 7, 2016
Lesley to Ed
Jun 24, 2016
I’ve been thinking and writing through this email for a couple weeks now. As you know, I struggle with text. Part of that struggle is the isolating nature of writing. I know we’ve been ‘conversing’ but it still feels like we’re each in a vacuum. So here it goes…
In an earlier message I mentioned that I wanted to go back to something I was thinking about years ago. And thanks to this conversation, I’m taking the opportunity to revisit it. As you know, I used to live in Helsinki on a Fulbright year abroad. My flat was in the Töölö neighborhood, just a block from the Baltic, and walking distance to this tiny shack of a coffee shop called Cafe Regatta. Cafe Regatta is Old. It’s been in the same spot for over 120 years, though not always as a cafe. First it was a proper fishing shack, then a Coca-Cola joint for the 1952 Olympics, then a boat house, and finally it became a cafe in the 1980s. I loved going to Regatta; it felt like “my spot” amidst a year of foreignness. I don’t know how to describe it exactly, but Regatta has a texture. Even now, I remember those visits with my whole body. Aesthetically, it’s like opening a curiosity cabinet. Inside, it’s tiny; there are maybe five tables. And the walls are literally covered with everyday, old Finnish objects: there are dangling ice skates and rusted tea kettles, a weathered map of Töölö, a portrait of Mannerheim, a Victorian-era nude. On the outside, Regatta resembles a traditional Finnish summer cottage: it’s red, gabled, and has a wood pier with a boat tied to it. But that’s not all. There are hand-painted signs littering the place, to teach foreigners a little Finnish, while stating the obvious for locals. For example, the painted sign on the little rowboat reads, “Tämä on Vene” (This is a boat). It’s humorous. The sign above the counter lets everyone know that refills pay five cents. (Not ‘cost’ five cents. They actually pay you a nickel.)
But here’s the thing, Ed. Despite its age and silly aesthetic, Regatta isn’t just some kitschy old coffee shop trying to make a buck. It is a thriving place of centralized retreat. I was just as likely to share a table with Swedish men playing cards as refugee Eritrean teenagers eating pulla. One Finnish woman was quoted in the newspaper as saying that Regatta was the only place she could find moments of brightness amidst the darkness of her depression. On a given August day, 1000 people might show up for coffee and mustikkapiirakka, but the place still feels intimate and inviting. When I talked with the owner, Raine Korpela, about this, he told me that he intended it this way. “There are many so-called ‘lonely people’ in Töölö,” he told me, “and more and more people living in Helsinki who don’t have cottages to go to. I want Regatta to be open to anyone, any day, to feel like they are at a mökki (summer cottage) … not alone.” Korpela ensures that Regatta stays open 365 days a year, even Christmas and Midsummer. This is important in Finland. For most Finns, a summer cottage is not just a place to vacation. It’s an architectural embodiment of physical and mental health, a place where you can go to take sauna and be in peace with nature and your inner world. Understanding traditional Finnish culture and history kind of necessitates spending time in a mökki. And understanding contemporary Helsinki and 21st century Finnish humor equally necessitates having coffee in Regatta.
As a history museum person, Regatta is totally compelling to me. While museums are reinventing themselves to stay meaningful and relatable, Regatta has lines out the door. It is genuinely popular, patently historic, and conspicuously scrappy in its marketing and approach. This scrappiness is a kind of genuine collective improvisation that, while designed, can’t be fabricated. I have to wonder, is Regatta’s popularity a manifestation of a paradigm shift taking place in museums — a suggestion that perhaps the most engaging curation of history and heritage is happening away from its authoritative interpretation? Or is history an aesthetic in and an of itself, a sensorial backdrop, enabling a different kind of learning? Regatta is NOT a museum (Korpela is a businessman). But it is a heritage space that has emerged over time with (arguably unintentional) core functions similar to that of a museum: it displays/preserves collections, shares Finnish culture, and provides meaningful public space for interaction and contemplation. Sure, we might be able to make the same case for a local bookstore. But there’s something about Regatta that brings me back to it as a place to reconsider these words we’re volleying. That texture counts for something, and now I’ve got new language for naming it.
Immersive. Multisensory. Vanishing Materialities. These are words that no doubt evoke the scrappiness of everyday life, especially at Cafe Regatta. Sitting in a crowded cafe or standing on a windy pier, it’s easy to see ‘real life’ as immersive and multisensory. (The materialities at Regatta aren’t vanished, they are layered. In the coffee stains and lingering smells, and compounded by every new visitor who comes into the place.) But in the context of museums, “immersive” and “multisensory” somehow become discrete tools. Tate’s Tony Guillian has this great quote: “Museums are somewhat antithetical. We take the object out of its context, then employ teams of people to add it back.” Part of what Tony’s talking about, I think, is that self-conscious addition of the ‘other’ senses into otherwise visually-curated exhibits. Because museums are typically designed for frontal interaction (our eyes are in the front, aren’t they?), we augment with constructed spaces like the tornado basement, to add back the ‘real life’ context. Of course, museums are as ‘real’ as bookstores and coffeeshops, with their own vanishing and layered materialities (the smell of old space + cleaning supplies, the texture of the carpet + humm of HVAC), but we minimize all that to meet the needs of conservation, education, and focused attention. I think that sensorial ‘white-washing’ is antithetical to the comfort (and maybe even creativity) we seek in museums. Personally, I want to see more of the real layers and vanishing materialities in my galleries. Even if it’s just a square of wall that shows the color of the previous exhibits’ paint jobs. Before we ‘add’ any new senses to the mix, we should consider how these additions might interact, counteract, or reify the existing sensorial domain and the ideas we want to get across. But we also need to allow museums to own their own sensorial scrappiness.
There’s sure a lot of pressure to being human in a museum: stand right — not too close! Don’t eat, bring a sweater, use your eyes, pay attention, keep your shoes on. How we respond to this multisensory and immersive environment prepares us to learn in certain ways. Our bodies pick up cues before (and in different ways than) our cognitive selves do; which is part of why museums turn to immersive and multisensory tools in the first place! They do more than just give visitors that ‘real world’ feel and context. They tap into ways of knowing/being/feeling that are sub-lingual and pre-cognitive. So when I walk into Regatta and I feel that texture, it’s my body both responding and learning. Luckily, the “lessons” I learn about Finnishness and ‘being welcome’ are not at odds with the ambient sensorial space. This is not always the case in museums, right?
I get it; we have to scrub down galleries to prepare them for another exhibit and new stories (complete with freshly vanishing materialities). But when we do, a richness is lost. A seriousness enters. Like the Rain Room, I can sense what is meticulously engineered — and it feels uncanny. From my last year of experimenting with senses in various kinds of museums, I’ve found a depth and diversity to the ways people want to experience museums. But one thing rests assured across the board: when greeted with an experience that mirrors their humanity, scrappiness and all, people recognize it on a bodily level, and they respond accordingly.