Revealing Meanings through Multi-Sensory Experience

A Paradigm Shift in Exhibition Display Culture

Essay, 2012

31 Pages, Grade: Merit





Section 1 : Critique on Conventional Vision-Dominated Culture : Exhibitions Just for Knowing, Reading, Looking,Gazing, Encoding?

Section 2 : A Shift to Multi-Sensory Exhibition Approach
2.1 Object focused? Experience focused? or Paradigm Shift?
2.2 Multi-sensory Approach - Core Traits

Section 3 : Case Studies
3.1 Partners (Haus Der Hunst, Munich, 2003) Walk-in-Film Experience
3.2 Rain Room (Barbican Centre, London, 2012) An Immersive Experience
3.3 Heiner Goebbels-Stifter’s Dinge (Ambica P3, London, 2012) Experiencing Performative Objects

Section 4 : The Impact
4.1 Role-shift of Audiences/ Visitors : From Passive Readers to Active Participants
4.2 Role-shift of Curators : From Scholars to Experience-Creators


Appendix - Image Sources

Bibliography ( word count : 4,998)


Enlightenment among Pioneers : Multi-Sensory Exhibition Approach

Displaying art objects in exhibition is not only an artistic expression in the heart of curating, but it is also an essential interface for curators to present stories and convey meanings. How to engage people beyond purely-visual-appeals is always a top-of-mind-question embedded in curators’ mind, and the discourse has become a major concern among pioneers in recent times. The notable social anthropologist, Sandra H.Dudley has raised a vital question in her book Museum Materialities: Objects, Engagements, Interpretations in 2010:

If we are lucky, the museum-goers may come away informed, provoked, moved or inspired by the objects they see - but how? Is this simply a result of contextual information or at least object-information packages, and/or of exhibition design and interpretation? Or is it also something to do with physical, real-time, sensory engagements [...]? If so, in what ways do those engagements come about [...]? 1

Dudley brings out a controversial discussion over exhibtiions’ engagement strategies, and she strongly doubts on the relevancy of the conventional display modes. Over the decade, frontier exhibitioners were attempting to breakthrough from a purely- vision-dominated museum culture. Some exhibition experiments were successful. Olafur Eliasson’s “The Weather Project”2 held in Tate Modern in 2003 is one of first cases that manifested internationally about new possibilities of multi-sensory engagement strategies. Relating to this, Antony Gormley, the renowned sculptor, has even reassured that it ‘is a new paradigm in the evolution of art’3, during his interview with the notable curator Hans Ulrich Obrist in 2008. The movement has fundamentally changed the way curators think about exhibition-making,including the ultimate purpose of displaying objects. The paradigm shift actually rings the bells and requires contemporary curators to pay attention to.

It is crucial to realize that the recent success was not only about the artistic sense of the artists, but it is also the revolutionary belief of the frontier curators that has made it happen.

Discussion Methodology

This essay aims to uncover the distinctive differences in the core beliefs of such multisensory approach, in order to find out dynamic answers to new display strategies. And the discussion will be carried out in four sections.

In section 1, the essay launches an overall-critique on conventional exhibition practices, questioning how the tradition has shaped a solely-visual-relationship between objects and audiences/visitors. Thus, it builds awareness that such limited museum experience is no longer compatible to contemporary settings any more.

In section 2, it leads to notify a significant shift to the multi-sensory approach of exhibitionmaking, and expose its entirely different core beliefs, in terms of fundamental assumption on the role of objects in exhibitions. It goes on to reveal core traits of the multi-sensory approach, before going into case studies.

In section 3, the essay brings in three contemporary exhibition case studies into discussion. They are reflecting the aforementioned core traits, simultaneously, showcasing diversities of specific experience offered. The three cases include Partners (Haus Der Hunst, Munich, 2003), Rain Room (Barbican Centre, London, 2010), and Heiner Goebbels-Stifter’s Dinge (Ambica P3, London, 2012). Investigation will be made respectively, in terms of exhibition ideas, the way they use objects, the details of each multi-sensory experience, and how they works to engage people.

Section 4 will see their impact on role-shift of audiences/visitors and of curators. Finally, the essay will conclude that multi-sensory approach is a new engagement strategy to convey meanings through experiences. Display should serve its new purposes.


1 Critique on Conventional Vision-Dominated Culture :Exhibitions Just for Knowing, Reading, Looking, Gazing, Encoding?

Susan M. Pearce, one of the crucial author specialised in contemporary museum object studies, writes about the conventional museum display, she gives her strong comment:

Vision has become the prime engagement with the world for many, probably most, people, so that their broader sensational capacities are correspondingly impoverished.4

What Pearce says is valid. All through the history, museum experiences were restricted to eye-and-mind activities. Since the practice of classification lied in the heart of curating for a long time, its concept and belief had hugely affected the purpose of display. As Janet Marstine comments on the conventional museum practices in her book New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction, she asserts that objects were seen to be narrating the past, and object details were codes and myth of the history. The whole setting of display was to enhance the notion of ‘Museum as Shrine’5. All the audience could do was just to confront at the artwork, marvel at artistic details and decode the meaning and association through introductory wall panels, catalogues and labels. Artworks were often housed inside cabinets or placed with no-touch signages. Such divides actually separated the art from the audience not only physically, but also mentally and emotionally. Curators’ roles were to be connoisseurs manipulating meaning, while audiences’ roles to be passive readers.

All these situations were based on one fundamental belief: The conventional practices treated museum objects as the centre of exhibitions, centre of all knowledge. However, a critical question is revealed : Will this belief change? Look at the contemporary art and exhibition scene. The answer is yes.

2. Entering a New Realm : Multi-Sensory Exhibition Approach

2.1 Object focused? Experience focused? or Paradigm Shift?

The emergence of multi-sensory approach signifies a fundmental change in the core belief, regarding to new notion of the role of museum objects. Although as Pearce asserts, ‘the excitement which objects offers [...] lies at the heart of the museum experience’6, there still remains a critical question : What kind of experience will audience get out it? As Anthony Gormley talks about the current change in an interview, he gives a coherent answer for this discussion:

[This is a] distinction between the experience of objects and the experience of experience itself. [...] this is central to the discussion of the evolution of the purpose of art. [...] The experience of art has evolved irrevocably away from an object’s authority, to the notion of the authorial experience of the perceiver. [...] we are no longer dealing with the forming of objects, we are trying to form experience.

This paradigm shift of attitudes towards museum objects, actually revolutionised how curators display objects for full engagement.

2.2 Multi-sensory Approach - Core Traits

Objects to Create First-person Experience at Present In contemporary multi-sensory practices, there emerges a new understanding of new museum objects. Objects are now seen to be vehicles for new encounters, while audience is being put in the centre of the experience. As Pearce asserts:

The object activates our own faculties, and the product of this creative activity is the virtual dimension of the object, which endows it with present reality.8

Essentially speaking, the objective of displaying objects has shifted. To curators, it is not merely displaying objects, but instead, they are displaying a now-and-here-experience.

Objects as Elements to Constitute a Whole Experience In new exhibition practices, individual objects now become tools for curators to tell a bigger story, presenting in a form of exhibition. If curators act as authors of the whole story, the objects can be considered to be words, phrases, with different kinds of intonations. If curators act as directors, then objects are the actors and settings in the whole scene.

Physical Interaction : Personal Relationship with Objects As the notable art critic Sally O’Reilly says, ‘Not only is the presence of the audience of the audience acknowledged, but the individual’s power to generate meaning is actively encouraged’9. In a multi-sensory exhibition setting, audience will develop new relationships with the exhibits and space. And O’Reilly really sees through the trend:

[...] the artist, artwork and viewers together negotiate an intellectual and sensory experience. Sometimes this is played out physically10 Audience will encounter with art objects in a whole new way. Contemporary curators are now aiming at creating a framework, in order to create personal journeys for the audience.

Emotional Insight : Value of Affects

Pioneer exhibitioners are also aware of the importance of direct stimuli, seeing values in emotional realm, taking account of psychological affect of exhibit objects. As Jenniefer Gadsby reviews the research in her essay The Effect of Encouraging Emotional Value in Museum Experiences, she reveals that:

Most of the emotional response which visitors have in museums are natural, unprompted and sometimes unexpected reactions, often from witnessing an object or gaining new insight on a topic.11

It is considered that psychological affect in objects has the power to impel the viewers, it is an essential element to move and convince audience, making a transformative experience possible.

Sensual Dialogue : Liberating Objects from Semiotics

As David Howes suggests, when a ‘Sensual Revolution’12 is happening in our culture nowadays , it is going beyond the age of spectacle. Smell, sound, touch, taste, are added perception to experience art objects. Social anthropologist Sandra H.Dudley also asserts her view as a complement explanation, that ‘museum object consists of an enmeshing of the physical thing and human, sensory perception of it’13, we should ‘disentangle objects from information and from the classificatory processes embedded in the museum enterprise’14. That is a base for today’s curating. Display should serve a whole new purpose.

All Core Traits Intrinsically Linked - Showcasing Diversities It is crucial to know that all traits aforementioned are not exclusive to each other, nor do they appear equally in each case. But rather, all traits co-relate together in a more complexed way. As Dudley reminds Pearce’s argument that ‘meaning of the object lies not wholly in the piece itself’, and she adds on:

[...] the sensible, physical characteristics of the thing trigger [...] emotional and cognitive associations, which together [...] to contribute the object’s materiality [...] [which is about] the dynamic interaction of both with our sensory experience.15

In the following sections, three case studies will be discussed to reflect aforementioned core traits depending on their own specialities. It is important to note that, some traits might be more prominent in one case than the others, the case studies will act as evidences of diversities in multi-sensory exhibition approach.

Case Study : Partners (Haus Der Hunst, Munich, 2003) Walk-in-Film Experience

“It is the physical and emotional experience of being with artworks that I have always regarded as paramount. ” 16

Ydessa Hendeles, Curator-Collector

Exhibition Idea :Experience History Anew

Partners 17 was an exhibition curated by Canadian Ydessa Hendeles, a curator-collector, held in Haus Der Hunst, Munich, in 2003. She was uniquely blending both her intense interest in curating and collecting to produce an installation reaching museum scale, in order to explore a long-repressed, ambivalent history between the Jewish, German people and those who were across the Atlantic. Hendeles did not aim to embody the objects with history baggage, nor to represent the past. All exhibits were carefully arranged for new encounters, for read anew. As reviewed in Indepth Art News:[Her] exhibitions are not about themes, but about juxtapositions that provide insights into presented objects. Her approach opens up unusual p e r s p e c t i v e s , offering new readings of the exhibited works.18

Individual Museum Objects as Elements : Produce Whole New Story Hendeles believes none of the exhibiting objects should stand alone to tell its own story in service of the past, but rather, all thousands of exhibits should act as individual elements for a curator to tell a whole new story for now. Predominantly, photography was the medium of this exhibition. Combining with lifeless objects, artefacts, antique toys, sculptures, videos, and her own collection called The Teddy Bear Project, consisting of


1 Sandra H. Dudley (ed.), Museum Materialities: Objects, Engagements, Interpretations, (Oxon: Routledge, 2010), p.3

2 Sally O’Reilly, The Body in Contemporary Art, London: Thames and Hudson, 2009), p.194

3 Anthony Gormley, ‘Interview with Hans Ultrich Obrist, 2008’, Anthony Gormley, (2008) <> [accessed 20/12/12]

4 Sandra H. Dudley (ed.), Museum Materialities: Objects, Engagements, Interpretations, (Oxon: Routledge, 2010), p.XV

5 Janet Marstine (ed.), New Museum Theory and Practice: An Introduction, (Oxford: Blackwell, 2006), p.1-31

6 Susan M. Pearce (ed.), Objects of Knowledge, (London: The Athlone Press, 1990), p.136

7 Anthony Gormley, ‘Interview with Hans Ultrich Obrist, 2008’, Anthony Gormley, (2008), <> [accessed 20/12/12]

8 Susan M. Pearce (ed.), Objects of Knowledge, (London: The Athlone Press, 1990), p.136

9 Sally O’Reilly, The Body in Contemporary Art, (London: Thames and Hudson, 2009), p.192

10 ibid., p.193

11 Jenniefer Gadsby, ‘The Effect of Encouraging Emotional Value in Museum Experiences’, Museological Review, Issue 15, (2011) P.4 < > [accessed 15/12/12]

12 David Howes (ed.), The Sixth Sense Reader, (Oxford: Berg Publishers, 2009), page ii

13 Sandra H. Dudley (ed.), Museum Materialities: Objects, Engagements, Interpretations, (Oxon: Routledge, 2010), p.6

14 ibid., p.5

15 ibid., p.7-8

16 Jocelyn Laurence, Elizabeth Legge, ‘Ydessa Hendeles: Pioneering Curator and Art Advocate’, Canada Council, (2004) < %2Farchives%2Fprizes%2Fggvma%2F2002%2Fydessa_hendeles-e.asp> [accessed: 17/12/12]

17 Hausderkunst, ‘Partners’, Hausderkunst, (2003),<[tt_news]=112&L=1> [accessed: 15/12/12]

18 Absolute Arts, ‘Indepth Arts News: “Partners: Collector and Curator Ydessa Hendeles' View of 20th Century Art” ’, Absolute Arts, (2003) < [accessed: 10/12/12]

Excerpt out of 31 pages


Revealing Meanings through Multi-Sensory Experience
A Paradigm Shift in Exhibition Display Culture
Kingston University London  (Kingston University London, in Partnership with the Design Museum, London, U.K.)
MA Curating Contemporary Design
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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"An arresting and fascinating essay. [...][I]t is up to the job of conducting a highly intelligent discourse in a way that carries the reader irresistibly along. The subject matter [...] is bang-up-to-the-minute, supported by recent literature.[...] And since Margaret is analysing new ways of doing exhibitions, one feels that she is entitled to devise an appropriately new way of articulating her essay.[...] As “research” the essay shows that Margaret is aware of and perceptive about the contemporary, and as criticism it shows that she has sharp ideas and can express them cogently." -Anthony B.
Curating, Museum, Exhibition, Exhibition Display, Culture, Multi-sensory, Experiential Art, Paradigm Shift, Meaning, Art Object, Curator, Curatorial, Narrative Space, Performative Space, Haus Der Hunst, Ydessa Hendeles, Random International, Heiner Goebbels, Artangel, Artist-curator, Cross-disciplinary, Interdisciplinary, Museum Studies, Art, Criticism, Theory, Installation Art, Critical
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Margaret Choi Kwan Lam (Author), 2012, Revealing Meanings through Multi-Sensory Experience, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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