Making Sense: Experiential Exhibits in England

As students of material culture, we learn to use all of our senses when investigating objects. Engaging (or imagining) our sense of touch, sound, smell and taste helps us to go beyond an object’s aesthetic qualities to better understand how it functioned in people’s everyday lives. During our trip to London this January, the first year fellows visited several museums that incorporate these considerations into their interpretation.

One tactic we encountered was the use of faux scents. Before entering the Gladstone Pottery Museum’s toilet exhibit (“Flushed with Pride”), visitors walk through a surprisingly evocative recreation of a Victorian slum. To jolt the viewer into comprehending nineteenth-century sanitation standards before modern plumbing, the slum is filled with the unpleasant odors of human, animal and food waste at close quarters.

While visiting the S.S. Great Britain, we learned from curator Rhian Tritton that a specialty laboratory in Britain supplies many museums with ready-made or custom ordered smells for their exhibits. They discretely function like plug-in air fresheners. On the S.S. Great Britain, the faux smells of horse, food preparation and even a seasick passenger all helped to immerse visitors in the stories being told. In addition, all of the objects inside the S.S. Great Britain’s exhibits could be touched. We were able to enter the tiny cabins and experience the probable discomfort of the cramped bunks.

Image 1 SS GB Store Room

Image 2, Allie bunk

Above: The store room aboard the S.S. Great Britain.  Below: Allie tests out a bunk in a first class cabin onboard

Several exhibits we visited also featured period costumes for visitors to try on. Not only did the costumes elicit an enthusiastic sense of play from visitors, they also helped us to conceptualize how clothing dictates movement. The hoop skirts available at the Fashion Museum in Bath, for example, illustrated how wearing a cage-like structure affected the way a woman sat on a chair or even moved through doorways. The Victoria and Albert Museum’s cravats showed us the time a Victorian gentleman would need to commit to tie various knots in fashionable taste.

Image 3 - Bath Fashion Musem

 Victorian garb at the Fashion Museum, Bath

Perhaps the most immersive experiential museum we visited was the Dennis Severs house. Nearly all of our senses were engaged as we made our way through the self-guided house room by room. Short sound recordings were strategically placed throughout to give the effect that the inhabitants were right outside the next door, that a horse was passing on the cobblestones nearby, or that a raucous fight had broken out in the alley.

The Severs house uses candle and gas lamp light only. Once your eyes finally adjust, you can not help but consider the effect of candle light on different object materials. With only wood and coal burning fireplaces, you, too, then become considerably aware of heat. Unrepaired areas of the garret created great drafts in the upper stories, while the more closely-quartered bedchambers were the most comfortable to take your time in.

Image 4 - Severs

The Dennis Severs House in candlelight. Image by Roelof Bakker

Such limited heat and light sources begged several questions about how an eighteenth century inhabitant experienced nighttime. How would this restrict or determine movement throughout the house? How would this effect the activities performed at night? How would it shape your notions of the nocturnal world outside the home? With our senses and minds engaged in new ways, the Severs house made us feel like we had stepped back in time.

Image 5 - Severs Kitchen

The kitchen of the Dennis Severs House. Image by Roelof Bakker

The English museums that incorporated experiential elements in their exhibits provoked us to think in new ways, not only about our senses, but also about how in our future professional lives we can encourage visitors to conceive of the past. We experienced an element of theater and playfulness, which in turn we witnessed also exciting fellow visitors.  Being introduced to curators and museum interpreters who are thinking outside the box to engage visitors was just one more way that the English Design History trip was an invaluable for all of us.

By Lan Morgan, WPAMC Class of 2017

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