22 May 2018 Attractions Management Handbook
 

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Attractions Management Handbook - Stimulating the senses

Feature

Stimulating the senses


Touch, taste, sound and smell provocations have a real impact on how visitors engage in exhibitions. Tom Pursey reveals Flying Object's multi-sensory design approach to their IK Prize winning exhibit Tate Sensorium

© Philip Bird LRPS CPAGB / shutterstock
Flying Object has brilliantly demonstrated how visitors can be connected to art in innovative ways
Chocolatier Paul A. Young designed a taste experience to dramatically transfer the tones in Francis Bacon’s Figure in a Landscape into something edible © Joe Humphrys/Tate Photography
Chocolatier Paul A. Young designed a taste experience to dramatically transfer the tones in Francis Bacon’s Figure in a Landscape into something edible
Chocolatier Paul A. Young designed a taste experience to dramatically transfer the tones in Francis Bacon’s Figure in a Landscape into something edible
John Latham’s Full Stop artwork was partnered with a touch sensation created in mid-air through ultrasound on the hand © Alastair Grant / press association
David Bomberg’s abstract painting In the Hold was brought to life with directional speakers and scents © Joe Humphrys/Tate Photography
Richard Hamilton’s Interior II featured three scents designed by Odette Toilette © Alastair Grant / press association

What happens if we bring additional sensory stimuli into a gallery or museum space? How might touch, taste, sound and smell provocations change how a visitor engages with, responds or reacts to exhibited artworks? And what kind of audiences would this kind of exhibition draw?

Last year, we at Flying Object designed and launched Tate Sensorium – a display at London's Tate Britain that attempted to answer exactly these questions. The Sensorium won Tate’s IK Prize 2015, awarded for ideas that use technology in innovative ways to enable visitors to connect to art. So, why (and how) did we do it, what did we learn, and how can this work inform future exhibition design?

SENSE THE POTENTIAL
Humans are fundamentally multi-sensory. Our brains are constantly taking information from all our senses, and combining it to create our perception of the outside world. Scientists are beginning to discover that this creates extraordinary amounts of sensory transference, as a quality perceived through one sense can transfer over to another sense; for example, high-pitched sounds can enhance the taste of sweetness. Our developing knowledge of this “cross-modality” has fuelled developments in other sectors – Heston Blumenthal’s restaurants feature carefully thought out lighting, music and texture to heighten the sense of taste.

This understanding poses questions about how art museums and galleries are conventionally designed. The “white cube” paradigm – tall, quiet, empty rooms – tries to prioritise “looking” by suppressing our other senses: no talking, no eating, neutrality above all else. But this suppression doesn’t turn our other senses off. Instead it simply creates a sensory landscape that is austere, rarefied, difficult and not fun. Which may indeed be the right landscape to chose for the artworks featured – but that doesn’t mean it needs to be the default. And indeed in many non-art museums, it isn’t: history museums have used sensory design for years.

INTENSIFY ENGAGEMENT
Our first decision from a design point of view when we created Tate Sensorium was to place the artwork front and centre. Whatever we did, it shouldn’t distract from the artwork – the extra stimuli should deepen and intensify our engagement with that piece.

Each of the four chosen artworks were presented in visual isolation: in dark, separated spaces, lit so only the painting was visible. Surrounding each was a multisensory installation designed in response to the painting’s content, process and contemporary history.

Richard Hamilton’s Interior II was complemented by three scents designed by scent specialist Odette Toilette, each localised to different areas of the space around it. The first was of wood polish, a direct reference to the parquet flooring depicted in the painting; the second was a bespoke carnation perfume, referencing the artwork’s main character (taken from a 1948 film still in which the scent of the character’s hair is referred to). The last was a glue smell to reference the artwork’s collage process. Meanwhile, audio – designed by Nick Ryan – imagined the sounds of heels on the floor, traffic through an open window, and the scene depicted on the TV in the painting, but with those sounds cut up (as with the collage process) and reassembled around visitors in a quadraphonic system. The result was an experience in which visitors moved around the space, smelling and listening, and constantly looking at the painting, letting the sounds and smells influence where they looked, spotting new details or seeing prominent areas in new ways.

The following three paintings each took a similar approach, but with interpretations becoming increasingly less literal, opening up space for personal interrogation and interpretation, asking unexpected questions, and creating focus. John Latham’s Full Stop was partnered with a touch sensation created in mid-air through ultrasound on the hand, designed by Dr Marianna Obrist and team at the University of Sussex, as well as more audio; for David Bomberg’s abstract painting In the Hold we used directional speakers to create planes of sound that brought to life the process of abstraction, as well as scents designed to bring out different colours within the work; and for Francis Bacon’s Figure in a Landscape we used sound, scent, and an extraordinary taste experience designed by master chocolatier Paul A. Young, using charcoal, salt, lapsang souchong, burnt orange and cacao nibs to dramatically transfer the range of dark and bright tones in the artwork into something edible.

Visitors were given wristbands to measure their biometric responses to the display, and at the end they filled out a simple questionnaire. By comparing the answers with the biometric responses, each visitor’s cognitive and instinctive reactions were evaluated. These were presented on a chart, while the data were immediately converted into a tour of Tate Britain’s permanent collection tweaked to the paintings that invoked the greatest response. The result was an art display like no other, framed as a science experiment while, at its core, offering a deep and immersive engagement with four pieces of twentieth-century painting. Visitors reacted enthusiastically, while each tranche of limited tickets was snapped up. The four-week run was extended to six weeks, with 4,000 visitors attending (100 per cent capacity).

MULTI-SENSORY DESIGN
Our fears when designing Tate Sensorium centred on avoiding gimmickry. We didn’t want to simply fill the Tate with technology toys and see what would happen; the design process had an ultimate goal – how do we bring visitors closer to the paintings, and make people think differently about them?

First was to find the right team. We needed specialists in each field, who would be given sufficient freedom to create great work while keeping to an overall experience design for each work. We found that team in audio specialist Nick Ryan, scent designer Odette Toilette, master chocolatier Paul A. Young, Marianna Obrist of the Sussex Computer Human Interaction Lab at University of Sussex and the human interface designers at Make Us Proud.

Second, we needed a process whereby we could learn and iterate; as no one had created anything quite like this, we needed to earn that experience on the fly. So we worked through prototypes and workshops, knocking ideas together quickly and testing them on ourselves before iterating, and iterating again. A few weeks before launch we invited friends to the Tate to formally road test a practice Sensorium featuring printed-off images of the artworks. This provided a huge amount of insight, and final amendments.

Third, we wanted to design a role for the visitor – a story that cast them as the protagonist. Our investigations into senses and art made us realise that employing sensory stimuli and thinking while engaging with an artwork could create a powerful response, provoking memories and focusing on details or colours. Our protagonists would be looking at paintings while connecting with their own senses and gaining a better understanding of how their own perception works.

For this we employed the talents of interactive theatremaker Annette Mees, who, along with lighting designer Cis O’Boyle, constructed an experience that played out as a story, and one which – importantly – groups of visitors would be guided through, one painting after the next. A beginning (wristbands on) and a mirror ending (wristbands off) framed a classic “into the woods” style narrative in which visitors tried strange experiences to learn about the art, themselves and their own perceptions, creating a collision of art and technology; while visitors were looking at the art, the exhibition (via the biometric wristbands) was looking at them. The (anonymised) data taken from the wristband at the end was analysed by our partners at the University of Sussex.

NOSE, EARS, MOUTH & FINGERS
Technology now allows multi-sensory design to be experimented with cheaply and quickly, at a time when audiences, always keen on new experiences, are beginning to demand it. But the threat of gimmickry will continue to hang over any new form of exhibition design, at least in its initial forms. So when thinking about the senses in spaces like museums, we would suggest that you ask yourself:

• What is our sensory landscape at the moment? There’s no such thing as sensory neutrality. Are the sounds, smells, textures and – where applicable tastes of the space you’re looking at working in support of what you’re trying to convey?

• What are you trying to do with the senses? Are you looking for something new and different, or is there a greater end goal that this practice can help you achieve?

• What’s the role of the visitor in this? How will they engage with the overall experience, and what will they take away from it? How will they easily understand what they have to do?

Whether the result of these questions is an intense multi-sensory experience or simply an idea for tweaking the audioguide, we hope that thinking with your nose, ears, mouth and fingertips might challenge the kind of conventions that need challenging. And if you don’t know where to start, we would be happy to help out. ?


About the author:

 

Tom Pursey
 

Tom Pursey is the co-founder and creative director of Flying Object, a London-based creative agency launched in 2013 focused on installation, video and interactive digital.

www.weareflyingobject.com
tom@weareflyingobject.com



Originally published in Attractions Handbook 2016 issue 1

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