SENSE LIVES OF THINGS:
A CROSS-DISCIPLINARY INVESTIGATION INTO THE SENSORY DIMENSIONS OF OBJECTS
IN PRACTICES OF COLLECTING AND DISPLAY
Shelley Butler, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Anthropology, University of British
Constance Classen, Sociology and Anthropology, Concordia University
Jim Drobnick, MFA Programme, Concordia University
Jennifer Fisher, MFA Programme, Concordia University and Communications
and Art History, McGill University
Monika Kin Gagnon, Communication Studies, Concordia University
David Howes (Principal Investigator), Sociology and Anthropology, Concordia
Laurier Lacroix, Histoire de l'art, Université du Québec
Jean-Sébastien Marcoux, Marketing, Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales
Most studies of collections have focussed on the visual
aspects of the objects displayed to the exclusion of the other senses.
This focus is in keeping with the general emphasis found in scholarship
on "visual culture", but it also follows from the sensory orientation
of the conventional museum. As it was developed in the eighteenth and
nineteenth centuries, the museum is designed to provide an exclusively
visual experience of its collections. This is as true of the ethnographic
and the history museum as it is of the art gallery. This sensory reductionism
is seemingly necessitated by the desire to conserve museum collections
intact, untouched. However, it is also based on the expectation that sight
can provide full aesthetic and intellectual satisfaction, and on a covert
belief that museum objects and the people who view them need to be contained
and controlled to prevent possible disruptions of the social order.
The present project will present a radical departure from this conventional
line of thought by treating corporeal sensation as an essential part of
the collection experience. In the process it will explore how practices
of collecting and display may support or challenge different social ideologies.
This "full-bodied" approach to studying collections will bring
to the fore sensory domains that are for the most part ignored or undertheorized
in contemporary scholarship. The senses of smell, taste and touch, in
particular, have traditionally been typed as too "primitive"
to have any real intellectual or aesthetic functions and therefore as
irrelevant to the appreciation or understanding of collections. Yet these
senses may also be engaged by collected objects in socially and personally
meaningful ways. Similarly, collected objects, particularly when they
come from other cultures or historical periods, may have highly significant
sensory dimensions which are "silenced" by present visualist
methods of display.
Along with examining how and why certain domains of sensory experience
have been cordoned off as unadmissable in the modern art or ethnographic
museum, the project will explore a range of historical and contemporary
alternative sites of collections. These sites include the church, the
private collection in its historical and contemporary contexts, the department
store, the theme park, and contemporary art exhibitions with multisensory
dimensions. While diverse in their nature and objectives, these different
sites of collections can all be seen to participate in an overlaping history
of display practices and to play a crucial role in shaping future models
for the presentation of collections. In this regard the questions we ask
ourselves are: Are the glass cases of the museum cracking under postmodern
pressures for a reconstituted and revitalized sensorium? What will come
out if they do?
The project will foreground the contextual study of objects in collections:
that is, how objects are positioned and how they "make sense"
in the museum, the home, and other contexts of display and use. It will
furthermore supplement and challenge studies of visual culture by demonstrating
the importance of examining all the sensory dimensions of cultural display.
The project will enrich the study of "consumer behaviour" by
exploring the ways in which commodities are actually experienced and used,
as distinct from the ways in which they are positioned in the media and
the marketplace. At the same time this project will provide curators and
students in the rapidly growing field of curatorial studies with insightful
analyses of conventional practices of display and with innovative ideas
for new methods of displaying collections. As collections and their sites
of display - museums, churches, private homes, stores, fairs - loom very
large in the popular consciousness, this study will also have appeal for
the general public.
Reports of Findings
Click here to view some of the published and unpublished reports of the findings of the "The Sense Lives of Things" project.
This research project, based at Concordia University,
Montreal, Canada, is funded by a very generous grant from the Social Sciences
and Humanities Research Council of Canada (2002-2005)
Inquiries should be directed to David Howes at firstname.lastname@example.org