Sensory Exploration in European Museums

Today, when you enter a museum, you generally expect to get a feast for the eyes. We are familiar with sight being is the primary method for learning in museums. However, this wasn't always the case. In her article, “Museum Manners: The Sensory Life of the Early Museum,” Constance Classen (2007) examines how museums from the 16th to 18th centuries curated multisensory experiences.


Museums for Touch


Early museums were primarily based in private collections and hosted unique individual experiences. “Part of the attraction of museums and of the cabinets of curiosities which preceded them, in fact, seemed to be their ability to offer visitors an intimate physical encounter with rare and curious objects” (896-897). Individuals could personally engage with objects and were guided through the experience by a host or curator. This enabled visitors private access to historical or cultural ‘curiosities.’ Though these experiences were facilitated through multiple senses, the emphasis was on touch.


Touch, not only gave visitors a tactile connection with the objects, but also conveyed the exclusivity of the object and experience, and therefore the privilege and social status of both host and visitors.

Touch helped bring the museum to life.

The seeming ability of touch to annihilate time and space gave it a particularly vital role in the museum where so many of the exhibits were from long ago and far away. Touch helped bring the museum to life. As an intimate form of sensory contact, touch did more than create physical and emotional connections with other peoples and places. It was a way of acquiring social prestige, of touching with one's own hands artifacts and artworks which had passed through a succession of distinguished hands in the past. It was also a means of transferring power and exclusivity. (903)



Touch, in these museums and collections had multiple experiential and social purposes. Visitors could:

  1. Enhance their experience and understanding of the object, and

  2. Connect directly to the history of the object, which was particularly desirable for objects of religious or royal significance

Similarly, the host was able to highlight their own connection to valuable objects, due to the power and privilege required to attain the objects. Touch, as a museum experience, provided a sense of personal ownership through exclusivity.


Engaging All the Senses


These intimate interactions with valuable objects functioned as the primary reason to visiting a collection or museum. As part of the ability to handle valuable objects, the additional aspects of sound and smell could enhance the experience. Sound would either surface in the manipulation of the object or in the curatorial descriptions that accompanied objects. Smell, on the other hand, was ever-present “with regard to scented woods or strong-smelling animals on exhibit,” but was not a dominant part of the overall experience (904). Both these senses, however, contributed to the overall exclusive environment of such collections.


Tasting in Museums and Collections


While touch was the primary sensation for collections and early museums in 16th to 18th century Europe, taste and food were incorporated into the presentation and experience of objects. Visiting a museum or collection could itself be interpreted as a sensory feast. In some museums, for example, “exhibits were set up on and removed from tables like the courses of a meal” (905). The presentation of objects had an order and a theatrical language which fed the visitors’ senses. And in some cases, the displayed objects were for eating.



The experience of visiting a museum or collection could itself be interpreted as a sensory feast. In some museums ... exhibits were set up on and removed from tables like the courses of a meal.





Delicacies from around the world held the same status as historically or culturally significant goods and could similarly be featured as part of the collection. Hosts would sometimes even offer these items as part of a culinary feast: “eating a museum piece was, perhaps, the ultimate act of ownership” (905). The ability to taste objects provided visitors with an exclusive experience of collected materials.


“Eating a museum piece was, perhaps, the ultimate act of ownership.”

Indeed, the sense of ownership extended into the museum and collection space as well. "In early public museums, however, visitors sometimes brought food to eat within the collection space itself. In private collections, the owner, if so inclined, might provide a collation” (904). Private collections could include edible objects as a light meal. By eating in the space, visitors further demonstrated their status and access to valuable items. The privilege was to be one of the exclusive few. Yet as culture and museum audiences shifted, however, the multisensory engagement of exhibitions began to alter as well.



Look, Don't Touch


The multisensory approach to museums and collection was permissible on the basis of its interdisciplinary approach to collections and highly restricted access. Ultimately, this educational approach shifted with emerging methods of scientific inquiry and investigation.


When sight came to prominence in society with the invention of the microscope and various measuring devices, the other senses were relegated to a status of barbarism. Whereas, "civilized adults were deemed to comprehend the world primarily through sight and secondarily through hearing. As regards the museum, this sensory shift meant that allowing visitors close contact with museum pieces could no longer be justified by scientific values. The important thing in modernity was to see” (907).


Visitors were still granted access to the objects, but were now barred from handling them by the new expectations of how to properly appreciate historically and culturally significant objects.

The important thing in modernity was to see.

Along with the shift to a hands-off cultural experience was a broadening audience for museums and collections. The increase of visitors, who were of middle and lower classes, further prompted the removal of valuable objects from the hands of visitors. Classen argues:


"Indeed, it may have been as much the desire of the elite to prevent the lower classes from showing disrespect towards the cultural and political authority museum pieces were seen to represent, as the modern emphasis on conservation and the development of more visually-oriented models of science and aesthetics, that resulted in the non-visual senses being almost entirely shut out of the museum by the mid-nineteenth century" (908).


Social hierarchies were alive and well in museum settings. An influx of the lower classes prompted worry that they posed a risk to the objects on display. The elite did not trust the lower classes to either handle the valuable objects or themselves in an appropriate manner. As access to cultural institutions increased, so did restrictions to the objects.


If the objects could still maintain the status of exclusivity, they would retain their social value. They would not and could not be tarnished by those deemed unworthy of them. The sensory shift of museums and collections is attributable to both contemporary scientific and social pressures.


If objects could still maintain the status of exclusivity, they would retain their social value.

The sensory transition of early European museums and collections established the foundation for the historical language of exhibition in early American historic preservation efforts.


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Classen, C. (2007). Museum Manners: The Sensory Life of the Early Museum. Journal of Social History, 2007(summer), 895-914.

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