Project Summary

New developments in museum practice are disrupting conventional notions of the museum as a silent and still site of purely visual display. The current emphasis on interactivity in many museums has resulted in a shift in focus from that of displaying objects to offering experiences in an attempt to ensure that visitors are memorably and informatively engaged by exhibits. To this end a number of sensory techniques have been called in to enliven the museum encounter. These techniques include multimedia presentations, hands-on interaction with artefacts, the use of scent, the presentation of "living" displays, and interactive exhibits in which one may, for example, try on clothing related to the artefacts on display. As museum director Jorge Wagensberg has written: "The old concept of the display case has been replaced by that of experience.... Above all the former highbrow attitude has been overtaken by an effort to involve all five human senses" (Wagensberg 2004).

The current project explores the innovative ways in which the senses are being engaged within contemporary museums along with the history of the role of the senses within the museum. While the classic model of the museum may be that of the late nineteenth-century "temple of art" in which visitors were kept at a reverent arms-length from exhibits, the history of seventeenth and eighteenth-century museums tells another story in which visitors touched, listened to, smelled, and even occasionally tasted museum pieces. This project examines the reasons for such multisensory interactions and the multiple factors which led to their exclusion from the modern museum in the mid-nineteenth century. The project will also examine the wide-ranging factors motivating the sensory renaissance of the museum in the late twentieth century. The increased interest in providing multisensory experiences for museum visitors, for example, can be related to the current emphasis on multisensory marketing and on the "experience" economy in the commercial sector. Technological developments, in turn, have enabled museums to employ a range of multimedia devices in their exhibits and to elaborate virtual museums on the worldwide web. It will be shown, furthermore, that transformations in the sensory practices of museums are sometimes driven by external interests. The increased availability of touchable artefacts, for instance, is motivated in part by pressures exerted by the visually-impaired to have greater access to museum collections.

The British Museum, founded in 1753, provides an excellent site for centring this study of the sensory history of the museum. It has a rich and well documented history dating from an early period in the development of museums, and it is currently a leader in the creation of intellectually and sensorially stimulating exhibits. Other museums to be visited and studied include the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, which combines a classic nineteenth-century mode of ethnographic display with innovative multimedia presentations and hands-on workshops, the Exploratorium in San Francisco, described by the Encyclopaedia Britannica as the archetype of the experiential, hands-on museum, and the Canadian Museum of Civilization in Hull, where we will look at the influence of source communities on artefact presentation and interaction, among other things.

Examining the shifting sensory practices of the museum from its earliest history to the present day contributes to our understanding of the social history of museums and indicates the new developments which may shape the museum experience of tomorrow. This study will be of interest not only to historians and social scientists but also to museum curators and visitors who wish to learn more about the history and significance of collection display.


"The Sensory Museum" will investigate the sensory and social history of modes of collection display and interaction within museums from the early modern period to the present. Questions to be addressed include: How did museum collectors, curators and visitors perceive and interact with collections in early modernity? What social and political values have been communicated through modes of collection display and how have these been contested? What social developments are promoting - or hindering - the rise of multisensory museum exhibits today? In what ways may such exhibits enable visitors to better understand museum artefacts and their cultures of origin?

By researching and responding to these and other related questions this project will bring to the fore the social significance of different perceptual paradigms of display and will situate the apparent "sensationalism" of certain contemporary museological practices within a culturally-informed historical framework.

"The Sensory Museum" project is funded by a grant from the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada. Team members include Constance Classen and David Howes, along with diverse graduate students. For more information please write to

Reports of Findings

Click here to view some of the published and unpublished reports of the findings of the "The Sensory Museum" project.