Team Members

  • Shelley Butler, Post-Doctoral Fellow, Anthropology, University of British Columbia
  • 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 University
  • Laurier Lacroix, Histoire de l'art, Université du Québec à Montréal
  • Jean-Sébastien Marcoux, Marketing, Ecole des Hautes Etudes Commerciales

Project Description

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