As visitors stroll through a recent display of Madame de Pompadour’s coffee grinder, an 1840s Sevres porcelain coffee service, tea canisters, sugar bowls and other European decorative arts at the Detroit Institute of Arts , the scent of roasted coffee beans rose through a room. Bach’s Cantata “Coffee” is played in the background.
Not far away, cocoa pods were not only on display but also meant to be touched. In the final gallery, a tasting station offered two kinds of liquid chocolate, one adapted from an Aztec recipe and the other from an 18th-century French formula.
Museums generally aim to provide a feast for the eyes, but this Detroit museum had much more in mind for “Bitter|Sweet: coffee, tea and chocolate», which has just closed at the institute. The officials, who used works of art to illustrate how the introduction of these drinks to Europe in the 16th century from Africa, Asia and the Americas changed social and drinking habits, wanted the exhibition is a banquet for the five senses.
So did the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore and the John & Mable Ringling Art Museum in Sarasota, Florida, with their collaboration, “A Feast for the Senses: Art and Experience in Medieval Europe“, on view at the Ringling until April 30. In addition to seeing some 100 ivories, stained glass, paintings, illuminated manuscripts and other works of art, visitors are invited to touch a modern reproduction of 16th century gold-and-enamel Langdale rosary, who belonged to an English family. In a gallery reminiscent of a church nave, where a 15th century German censer in gilded silver is exhibited, one smells the ecclesiastical incense that it would have dispensed.
And where “Tapestry with Narcissus at the Fountain” is on view, they hear the chirping of birds, the tinkling of a brook and the rustling of trees, and they smell the scent of the flowers depicted in the tapestry. At the Ringling, they can sit on a nearby bench and gaze at themselves in a mirror for their own Narcissus moment.
“We are interested in multisensory exhibits because people come to a museum not just with their eyes but with their whole body,” said Swarupa Anila, head of interpretation at the Detroit Institute. She called them an “experiment”.
Other arts institutions are also experimenting. For example, when the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass., featured “Asia in Amsterdam: Luxury Culture in the Golden Age» Last year, visitors were invited to touch fine translucent porcelain imported from China, and to imagine the novelty that the Dutch of the 17th century must have experienced. And when the Worcester Art Museum in Massachusetts relocated its medieval collection last year, it incorporated ‘hands-on touch stations’ for reproductions of the tools used to make metalwork, carved stones and enamels in the galleries. .
These efforts are closely monitored from different angles.
Some museum officials see these offerings as a way to appeal to younger audiences who are steeped in multi-sensory experiences and to deepen engagement with art objects for all. But others see them as distractions.
“Any human being can respond to great works of art,” said Gary Tinterow, director of the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, not speaking about those specific exhibits but about the phenomenon in general. “We don’t need intermediaries. We can increase the experience for children. For adults, I think it’s not necessary.
Natural history and science museums have long offered visitors the opportunity to do more than look. Occasionally, art museums too. As early as the 1970s, Diana Vreeland, special consultant to the Costume Institute at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, perfumed the air at her exhibitions. In recent years, several museums have played background music during certain exhibitions. Last summer, for example, the Art Institute of Chicago played songs by Woody Guthrie and Sarah Vaughn and other period pieces in its “America After the Fall: Painting in the 1930s” exposure.
Going further takes a lot more thought, and many agree that the decision is best driven by the subject of an exhibit.
For Martina Bagnoli, former curator of medieval art at Walters and current executive director of the Galleria Estensi in Modena, Italy, which curated “A Party for the Senses,” a multi-sensory installation was natural. “Medieval images and objects were made to speak to all the senses – not just sight,” she wrote in the show’s catalog, adding, “They weren’t just seen, but also, and at the same time, touched, tasted, smelled and heard.”
At Ringling, Virginia Brilliant, curator of collections, agreed that it seemed essential to show how art objects engage the senses. “There’s not much a curator can say – sometimes you just have to experience an object,” she said. In a great example, when people looked at musical manuscripts, they could hear that same music.
Touch and taste are the most difficult senses to engage. Touch can sometimes be sated with cues, but in “A Feast for the Senses” taste is only invoked in the labels on feasts and the sacrament of the Eucharist. On the other hand, “the taste was a perfect fit” for “Bitter|Sweet,” Ms. Anila said – though it’s likely to remain rare at art shows.
Visitors seem to like these extras, the museums say. By observing people in galleries and in videos and by conducting surveys, the Detroit museum found that they looked at the objects for long periods of time, which is not typical. Ms Anila described them “stopping in front of almost every piece of art, leaning down to look”.
Museum officials say, however, that they will resist the temptation to make each exhibit multi-sensory. “We don’t want to do it just because we can,” Ms Anila said. Neither the Detroit Institute nor Ringling plans to use a multi-sensory approach to shows on their current schedules, which are planned years in advance. But that may well change, even in other museums.
“I like the art to do its job and I like to walk away,” said Ms. Brilliant, who calls herself a traditional conservative. “But this exhibition opened my mind and made me realize that there are many ways to do things like this in the future.”