The importance of multisensory experiences, in particular the olfactory, in archival and educational spaces.

Ella Wanendeya

5950 words

45 minutes

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The traditional presentation of cultural material is currently far removed from our instinctual sensory nature, as human neuroscience evidences that "our internal representations of realityare intrinsically multisensory"(Levent & Pascual-Leone, 2014). Affect theory is the idea that we experience the world primarily through our senses before our emotions. Therefore, objects presented in glass boxes are restrictive, creating a distance between the viewer and the intended use of the object. I will suggest that interaction with the artwork through the senses should be viewed as an essential experience, since it would deepen our understanding and allow for unique emotional connection. The present hierarchy of the senses, which only allows interaction through sight for the majority of visitors, limits the learning experience and highlights inequalities of access.

I will demonstrate the value of multisensory experiences through the framework of affect theory and the science behind the sense. This will include Proust's famous conveyance of sense-memories, successful examples of the multisensory, the current stale presentation of objects, and finally the rapidly evolving relation between physical and digital worlds.

The olfactory sense in particular, due to its method of processing, and perhaps also due to its underappreciation, is notably powerful in creating memorable experiences. Olfactory signals very quickly get to the limbic system (Walsh, 2020). They are processed rapidly, which in turn makes them scientifically and emotionally more memorable.

There are several successful existing examples of multisensory learning experiences, such as the Sensorium of New York where childhood scents are used to provoke emotional reactions (Rosenfield, 2011), and the Cafe Sabarsky which offers a close to authentic experience of classic Viennese Cafe Kultur (Levent & Pascual-Leone, 2014).

As we proceed further into our digital age, the future of museum displays is increasingly likely to be digital. This can be evidenced by data which shows that in 2020, 10% of museums reported that their online visits increased between 60-150% (Network of European Museum Organisations, 2020, p. 14). In this paper I examine the benefits and drawbacks of this move, in tems of our contemporary environment of legal sensory restrictions, concluding that a balance between these two would be the best. This is because it would allow for new and much needed creative development and geographical accessibility, but at the same time, not neglecting our core affectual nature. The ever-evolving connection between the physical and digital realm is particularly important in today's society which is navigating Covid-19 restrictions, and I speculate on how this will develop into a new era of artistic and cultural imagination.

Affect Theory

Affects are non-conscious experiences of intensity. It is often said that we feel before we think, harnessing the "vital forces beyond emotion - that can serve to drive us toward movement, thought and extension"(Gregg and Seigworth, 2010). It is evident that the body is immersed in the world's rhythms and is subject to subconscious influences. Affect theory cannot be pinned down to one concept, due to its subjective nature (Affect theory is subjective as it is entirely defined by personal sensory and emotional experience, which differ from person to person), which allows for the emergence of diverse intellectual beliefs. The intellectual views surrounding affect theory are varied due to individual interpretation of being 'affected' and unique ways in which the interpreter feels their senses engage with the world. This is a sentiment captured by the philosopher, Spinoza, in his statement; "no one has yet determined what the body can do" (1677, Part 2, Part III).

While affect theory is not a new concept, there has been a new flood of interest in the movement in the late 20th century, some key philosophers being Silvan Tomkins, Eve Sedgwick and Brian Massumi. Tomkins understood affect to be the primary motivational system, an "innate biological...mechanism, more urgent than drive, deprivation and pleasure, and more urgent than even physical pain" (1677, p.2, part III).According to affect theory, nothing matters unless it has first been amplified by affect; our interpretation is guided first by sensory elements. It suggests that we experience a much deeper connection when we make sense of the world primarily through our senses. Affects gift us the opportunity to fall to a universally understood form of communication: our feelings and senses.

This sense of what makes us human is felt at the "flash-like outbursts" (Figlerowicz, 2012). We are swept away by that which redefines our prior sense of what drives us.However, these sentiments cannot be translated into linguistic form. Ben Highmore, professor of Cultural Studies and Humanities, expressed it in these words:

who you really are, or what you really are, is going to be found in the pumping of your blood, the quantity and quality of your perspiration, the breathlessness anticipation in your throat, the way you can't stop yourself from grinning... (2010).

Our experience of cultures is a "densely woven entanglement"(Highmore, 2010) of emotions, affects, and perception. For us to understand these sticky entanglements of the affects, we don't need to untangle them, but rather allow ourselves to become deeply immersed within these affective experiences (Highmore, 2010). Our senses will then bleed together to form an understanding of the world and settings around us. An example of this would be the neurological condition, synesthesia, where sound may be perceived as colour, presenting as a form of sensual interconnection.

When experiencing the world around us, we tend to place more value on one sense, not understanding that the other senses are involved in our perception. For example, when eating an apple, we:

might necessarily privilege taste, yet to concentrate on taste to the exclusion of the other senses means to fail to recognise that the experience of eating is also dependent on the haptic sensitivity of tongues and mouths, on our olfactory abilities, and on sight and sound (Highmore, 2010).

The physicality of our emotions is confirmed by a deeper look into common English phrases. Words denoting affective experience sit on borders of the physical and metaphysical3 (Highmore, 2010). For example, we state that we are moved by a sentiment, or touched by a presence. It becomes clear that emotive states are stimulated by physical sensations. Furthermore, our feelings are often paired with physical affirmation. Highmore provokes this notion in us by asking:

could you possibly feel that you were in love if you couldn't also feel your heart climbing into your throat? Would you really be moved by a tragedy if you didn't experience tears trickling down your cheeks? (Highmore, 2010).

Whilst affect is evidently woven into our everyday language, one of its most notable features is that it actively steps away from discourse as a means of dissemination due to the belief that putting such a concept into words would reduce its core sentiments. Brian Massumi, a key affect theorist, explains it in this way, "if affect is a kind of chaotic excess and unprocessed push, then the moment of discursive representation is bureaucratic and organisational" (2002, p.34). Affect theorists do not believe in 'taming' their concept using words, arguing that critical theory is too occupied with codings, griddings and positioning, thus ignoring the moment of becoming (Massumi, 2002, p. 12). Our obsession with language being the principal, if not only, method of communication means that it is ill-fitted to explain concepts such as affect theory, and has led us to a place in which "writing culture writes off the senses" (Caballero, R & Paradis, C, 2015, p. 11). The current hierarchy of the senses means that we are too saturated with words and images. Thus, affect is an opportunity to challenge this.

This deliberate opposition to discursive practice arguably limits understanding of the theory as it cannot be put into words. Majid and Levenson eloquently state this point:

while language may be poorly suited to translate highly subjective sensorial experiences into comprehensible and shareable terms, it still appears to be the best - if not the only - medium human beings have for such an endeavour (2011, p. 6-7)

A study by analyst and linguistic anthropologist, Majorie Goodwin, in 2006, (see Appendix A, p. 32) attempts to challenge the view that affect and discourse should be exclusive of one another. She spent considerable time analysing behaviours of girls in school playgrounds and explored affect and discourse equally, in their embodied actions (Wetherell, 2013, p. 12). Her research evidences that body language, facial expressions and intonation are integral to affectual registers and these are all aspects which can be expressed via language. Although Goodwin believes that her work is successful in proving that discourse can be used as an aid to understanding affect, I would dispute this. Her written account of the playground activities appears highly one-dimensional and serves to reinforce the key affect belief that the sensed body ought to not be expressed through language. Goodwin appears to be "dabbling into (the) endless sea of words"(Clough, 2010, p. 223) that many affect theorists speak of, and it would certainly be more productive to simply immerse oneself into the physical experience.

The Science of Sense-Memories

The power of our senses, foregrounded in affect theory, is reinforced when turning to science. In simple neural language, stimuli that "fire together, wire together" (Ward, 2014), meaning that events encoded through the stimulation of multiple senses will have a higher retrieval rate due to forming a more evenly distributed memory system. A study conducted in 2004 (Murray et. al) presented participants with a series of visual images, and asked if they had seen the image before. One group was presented with solely visual images, and the other was given relevant sounds to accompany the photographs. The results showed that memory of images was significantly improved when it was paired with compatible audio. This highlights the power of combining senses to heighten awareness, and thus improve memory retention; a tool which could be utilised in an educational or archival context. This is a concept supported by Paivio's Dual Coding Theory(Paivio, 1983), which states that storing information in multiple codes is greater for memory; it is a basic psychological law that more deeply encoded memories are better recalled.

Our olfactory senses are particularly powerful when it comes to memory retrieval. This is due to the way in which they are stored directly, without the involvement of the extra neural pathways which the other senses are subject to. Olfaction projects directly to the amygdala without being gated by the thalamus, meaning that olfactory senses very quickly get to the limbic system where they are processed and stored. The rapidity of the brain's processing of smells is reflected in memory recall length. Sight only has 100 milliseconds, in comparison to smell and taste which have 5 seconds, and sound has 3-4 seconds of recall (NIH, 2020). This scientific discovery was further demonstrated in a smells and emotions study conducted by psychologist Silvia Avala (2007). Her examination of 1000 participants proved that people remember a staggering 35% of what they smell, compared to 5% of what they see. However, our society and culture is so dominated by the visual senses that we spend a total of 50 days of the year staring at screens (Code Computer Love, 2019). This visuocentric nature of the world is reflected in the current design of museums and archives where artefacts are only able to be appreciated via our sight. We are in fact so oversaturated by ocular perception that it is no wonder that it has becomes less meaningful.

Smell is said to be our oldest and most complex sense (Stafford, 2012). Our ancestors lived in a world where chemicals could be found in the air and water, therefore, smell was essential to protect themselves. Stafford, states that "before sight, hearing or even touch, creatures evolved to respond to the chemicals around them. It was a matter of survival" (2012).This highly developed nature is shown in the level of receptors we have to process smells. Whilst sight requires four kinds of light sensors in the human eye, smell contains over 1000 receptor types, almost nullifying sight in direct comparison (Stafford, 2012).

Smell surrounds us and penetrates our body, thus provoking a more emotional response and triggering an information release. In addition to this, the olfactory bulb located in our brain sits right next to the hippocampus. The hippocampus is a convergent point for information arriving all over the cortex, thus making it crucial for creating new memories (Stafford, 2012). The strong capabilities of our other senses therefore can and ought to be harnessed in order to gain a deeper understanding of our past.

Proustian Memory

With this is mind, it can be understood why we often find ourselves triggered by a particular sense, such as smell, taste or sound, to recall a vivid memory. Proust illuminated something about the link between memory and olfaction that we are beginning to comprehend neuroscientifically. This is referred to as a type of 'Proustian' memory, in reference to his thoughts in In Search of Lost Time (Proust, 1913) where Proust eats a small piece of madeleine cake dipped in warm lemon tea and immediately finds himself transported to days at his aunt's house when he was a child eating the very same thing. Proust recounts:

an exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin" (Proust, 1913)

He experiences the phenomenon of involuntary memory, with which many of us are familiar, tracing the contours of a subjectivity that accumulates memories without realising it (Tim, 2012). Proust's theory demonstrates that the past can be revived in unexpected situations, the subject somehow bending time and breathing the dichotomy between past and present. Smith describes this phenomenon as "a wordless form of contact with a time one didn't know one had remembered (2016)". Although particular smells may go unnoticed at the time, they are continually being recorded with time and place. The connection of the olfactory senses in particular, with memory, is one which is always emotionally laden, intense and long-lasting. Since these experiences are so memorable and meaningful, it leads us to conclude that our senses are extremely valuable in terms of recalling events.

However, it must be acknowledged that our sensory experiences are subjective. Our personal encounters with the world will undoubtedly colour our perceptions when we enter a space; our capacity is dependent on our previous experiences (Falk, 2009). Children's author, Jan Mark (2007) highlights the subjectivity and power of our stored memories when stating:

...everything you have ever heard, smelled, tasted, or touched is in there (your head). You can get it out and have an exhibition whenever you want; you can spend as long as you like wandering around.

The mind is continually collecting our experiences, much like a museum, and if we allow ourselves to be immersed in our previous affectual encounters, we can relive these moments endlessly. This can be compared to our museum visits:

when we leave we take home this mental image of the object or work of art, a dynamic image that is coloured by our own preconceptions...the atmosphere of the museum, enthusiasm of the tour guide, conversations we overhear... (Levent & Pascual-Leone, 2014)

The entire multidimensional nature of our experience is recorded, even those which we do not consider consciously will affect our experience. For example, we do not often record the smells of a room but they clearly have a profound impact on our perception whether they are consciously or unconsciously registered.

Sensory Stimuli of Immersive Experience

It is evident that multisensory experiences hold special power in terms of emotional connection and memory recall; elements which would serve to benefit a museum or learning experience. As stated by Levent & Pascual-Leone (2014), we have a "multisensory experience of the world by default",therefore it would make sense to create intentional sensory interactions within a space. Current museum design presents objects in clinical settings, causing a disconnect between viewer and culture. This is a notion challenged by numerous art critics, and philosophers who do not agree with the restrictive sensory politics of the modern museum (Drobnick, 2004, 2006; Vogelin, 2010; Serres, 2009; Kelly, 2011; Bacci & Meicher, 2011). However, this restrictive presentation was not always the norm. In the late 17th and 18th centuries, visitors to the Ashmolean and British Museum were permitted to rub, pick up, shake, smell and even taste the artefacts on display (Classen, 2005).

There are several spaces today which incorporate the senses to facilitate deeper understanding. A popular modern example is the Cafe Sabarsky (Fig. 1) and Cafe Fledarmus within the Neue Gallerie of New York, which is dedicated to early-twentieth century German and Austrian design. The cafés feature traditional Viennese menus in a setting intended to give a classic Viennese experience. The tearoom includes seat design by modernist Austrian architect, Adolf Loos, and other period objects such as lighting fixtures by Josef Hogfman, including banquettes upholstered with Otto Wagner fabric from 1912. While guests dine on these Viennese classics, they are offered the most authentic experience of Viennese Cafe Kultur in New York City (Levent & Pascual-Leone, 2014). This form of stimulation of multiple senses enables visitors to immerse themselves in Viennese culture, facilitating a deeper connection and understanding with the works viewed in the museum because they have been given a context.

Another artist harnessing this power of smell to deepen understanding and educate an audience is Lizzie Ostrom, also known as Odette Toilette. Her work is focused on creating experiences that invite people to feel, think and explore through scent, in forms such as installations, events and books (Lizzie Ostrom, 2020). Some of her most celebrated pieces include the Mummy Unwrapping Party at Barts Pathology Museum (Fig. 2), her contribution to the Tate Sensorium and the Pollution Pods of Somerset House. Her engaging use of scent at the Mummy Unwrapping Party in 2016 is of particular interest, since not only did it allow the audience to relate to Ancient Egypt, but also to the Victorian era. This is because mummy unwrapping parties occurred frequently during this period, some events even attracting over 3000 people (Wynarczyk, 2016). Of this, Ostrom explains:

I'm always looking for interesting ways of bringing the sense of smell to life. They (unwrapping parties) seemed like such an esoteric part of London's intellectual and entertainment scene, so I thought why not try and put one on? (2016)

On this unusual night at the museum, scent strips were passed around and explained. Some of these include tobacco, (smoked by the Victorian host), green beeswax (used in the linen wrappings) and moss (used as padding) (Wynarczyk, 2016). Audience members were also permitted to hold a metal ankh, allowing them to hold such a recognised object of Ancient Egypt, promoting a deeper connection with this culture.

Vice Magazine contributor, Natasha Wynarczyk, who recounts her personal experience at this event, raises a key point of consideration concerning sensorial re-enactments, through her reaction to the juniper berries which were passed around by Ostrom as a material in which the mummies were wrapped. Wynarczyk recounts that,

unfortunately, the first thing that comes to mind is a memory of necking straight gin in my college bar ten years ago. I spent that night puking into my dorm room sink while weeping. I'm not enjoying reliving it. (2016)

Whilst amusing, it serves to highlight the difficulties that promoting a wider range of sensory experiences must take into account. Previous connotations with particular smells cannot be erased and therefore risk impacting our understanding, one may not interpret what a particular smell, taste or touch intends to communicate, due to its subjective nature.

The Mummy Unwrapping Party also raises important questions as to its Victorian influences and the ethics surrounding this. Wynarczyk states that mummies unwrapped during the Victorian era were often ground into a paint known as 'Mummy Brown', was popular with Pre-Raphaelite painters (2016). This demonstrates the sheer objectification of these mummies and also evidences the superior attitude held by many who believe ancient cultures to be primal and thus unworthy to be deemed human.

Figure 1: The Cafe Sabarsky of the Neue Gallerie, draws its inspiration from the great Viennese cafés that served as important centers of intellectual and artistic life at the turn of the century.

Figure 2: Ostrom's 'Mummy Unwrapping Party' at Barts Pathology Museum, 2016.

Current Presentation of Cultural Objects in Museums

The modern museum setting presents artefacts in stark contrast to our innate perceptions of people and cultures; one in which objects are often removed from all senses other than the visual. The impersonal framework in which such artefacts are presented is highly detached from their colourful home cultures and original contexts. How can we expect to leave a museum understanding a culture if all we see are objects presented in glass cases in a sterile manner? As Levent & Pascual-Leone comment, it is common for native cultures to dislike the term 'museum' as it implies 'dead things':

their traditions and objects require a space that will perceptually resonate with a particular culture and its sensory, symbolic, spiritual and mythological concerns (Levent & Pascual-Leone, 2014, p.17).

Peter Sellars, recognises this, in this own viewpoint that the objects are not intended to be in display cases. He states "these objects are meant to create experiences and these experiences are the key to our own infinity (2014)." Each object is intended to create an immersive experience, and there is undoubtedly a gap here which could be remedied through intentionally creating multisensory experiences surrounding these pieces. Sellars continues to say that modern museums are prison-like places for art, since they are highly santised, and the irony is that they were not created in sanitised conditions at all, but quite the opposite. He believes that "we have to pollute these spaces, make a mess, make a set of rituals, activate ourselves and activate the art" (2014). Peeling back the masked settings that cultural artworks are presented in would allow viewers to reach beneath the surface and see the art as it was intended to be seen, as well as connect with our sensorial nature.

However, multisensory museum experiences, if executed poorly, risk glamorising a culture by creating a spectacle which is not only inaccurate, but reinforces poor stereotypes or appropriates spirituality. This is an issue recognised by Frederic Lamp, the curator of African Art at the Yale University Art Gallery. He states that multisensory experiences run the "risk of exoticising and trivialising something of deep significance"(2014). We must recognise that there are certain appropriate boundaries as to how much a culture can be brought to life by those who are not part of it as this could be disrespectful to its origins. This disconnect is captured by Lamp's recount of his experience at the Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, which had part of its Africa display reorganised as a West African market, with plastic fruits scattered around, heaps of colourful textiles and voices of foreign tongues coming out of speakers (2014). He stated that this experience felt completely disconnected from the exhibition, it didn't link directly to the artworks on display and presented a disappointingly stereotypical view of West Africa being chaotic and less civilised (Lamp, 2014).

The issue of the 'other' in exhibition spaces is still yet to be tackled by curators today as the real daily life of citizens continues to rarely be depicted. Those which do attempt to portray some of the 'regular' life of other cultures do so with not much understanding. This is evidenced by the Niagra Falls Museum in Canada which collects objects that make "little distinction between the natural and the man-made, including paintings, scientific instruments and exotic artifacts along with animals, rocks and birds" (Strand, 2009, p. 84). The fact that objects continue to be portrayed with "an eye toward aesthetics rather than explanation" (Strand, 2009, p. 84) demonstrates that the curators prioritise works looking good in the space, rather than educating audiences. This occurs most often with non-Western cultures being presented in Western spaces, the fascination with the curious and 'other-worldly' combined with Western attitudes of superiority means that objects are presented in a depthless and one-dimensional manner. A solution to this would be sufficient research and thus presentation into multiple sensorial forms. This would allow the audience to be able to empathise more easily with unfamiliar cultures, and see them as real humans with intelligence rather than in terms of the simple extremes of either poverty or wealth.

Digitisation of Senses & Cultural Memory

A rapidly growing factor determining our perception of exhibitions is digital culture. According to the 2019 Internet World Statistics, over 56% of the total population now have internet access, an estimated 4.3 billion users (Straughan, 2019). This still relatively recent shift to online experiences is greatly changing the way in which museums interact with their audiences, and they are responding to demand by uploading more content online. This increasing digital arts culture is beneficial in that it grants wider access, and allows for preservation of material. It alsoenables those impacted by the recent Covid-19 pandemic to remain indoors and yet still appreciate an exhibition. On the other hand, it is clear that online experiences are no match for the real-world; they reduce affective experiences, decrease sharing of interpretations and are reliant on the individual's technical competence and the quality of their device.

Largely due to the sudden impact of Covid-19 forcing people to remain indoors, in 2020, 80% of European museums increased their digital services, and 30% of museums changed their staff, dedicating them solely to the digital team (Network of European Museum Organisations, 2020, p.2). This shift to online content was necessary, as footfall even in post-lockdown conditions was greatly reduced.

As recognised by Khoon and Ramaiah, "effective exhibits are strongly'experiential', i.e. when a visitor walks through them, he/she also sees, hears and sometimes touches the exhibits" (2008, p.12). It is acknowledged that our perceptions are automatically multisensory, meaning that while online exhibitions rely on the visual sense, the other senses are also integral to the multisensory experiences which digital displays fail to recognise. Our digital understanding of information is highly subject to our unique individual settings. A person viewing an online exhibition through their mobile phone whilst on a busy bus will inevitably have a completely different perception to somebody viewing it through their large HD projector view in quiet settings. Although there will always be some level of subjectivity to these experiences, it can be greatly reduced by physical displays which control as many sensory elements as possible.

Nonetheless, the digital shift is widely seen as necessary in order to preserve information for future generations. Historian Barry Supple, stresses that archives are subject to ravages of time, to neglect, to forgetfulness, and to the destructive forces of war and civil unrest (2015, p.39). The flooding of the River Arno, Florence, in 1966 filled basements of the city, causing over two million precious books to suffer from water damage and restoration is still underway today (International Council on Archives, 1996, p.4). 'The Cultural Digitisation Scorecard', shows that developing countries are far advanced in archive digitisation, with Indonesia one of the scorecard leaders (The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2016, p.5). This is perhaps due to the reality that these countries are prone to natural disasters, and as a consequence, have felt a greater sense of urgency to preserve their materials.

Digital storage of information not only preserves future accessibility, but also widens it. Access via technology enables audiences to overcome the financial and geographical obstacles to engaging with a culture (The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2016, p.16). Research has shown that 60% of people view exhibitions or events online that they are not able to attend in person (The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2016, p.16). A common misconception is that digital exhibitions result in less people bothering to appreciate it physically. Digital access has been proven to prompt people to go in person, 40% say that they make more physical visits due to their digital experiences (The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2016, p.18).

Whilst accessibility is hailed as a major advantage of digital displays, a deeper look evidences that this is not the case for all. In fact, certain divides, already present in physical, traditional displays where the multisensory nature is not considered, are only heightened by some digital experiences. Firstly, this is due to the fact that they assume a certain level of technological competence. Over 30% of those aged over 65 have never used the internet. Of those aged over 65 who do use the internet, more than half have needed help in using their digital device (Anderson & Perrin, 2017). In an interview with an older person grappling with internet use, they state "some things are just not possible if you are not in the flow of the internet" (Fields, 2019). Our increasingly digital society comes at the cost of excluding the older generation who may not be as technologically competent.

This heavily digital presentation of information also discriminates against those in developing countries and those with lower income as they have less internet access or often no digital devices at all. Although a huge 4.6 billion people worldwide are active internet users, still almost half of the world population has no internet access (Clement, 2020). This technological divide is heavily debated in today's climate where online education inevitably impacts the economically disadvantaged who have less digital access, or perhaps are required to share it with others.

This being said, I believe there exists a balance in which the digital can support a physical experience. This would allow the outlined benefits of digital displays, whilst at the same time, not excluding members of society with limited access.

The physical museum has an irreplaceable status in people's minds. Hence, the aim of digitisation should be focused on filling the gap of the physical museum. (Li et al, 2011, p.2)

The issue with many digital museums today is the lack of creativity, as it is possible to have a range of affectual experiences, facilitated by technology. This was evidenced by composer Tan Dun's Carnegie Hall musical piece of 2015 in which audience members were invited to download a recording of a birdsong to their mobile phone and play it at specific intervals to blend with the orchestra (The Economist Intelligence Unit, 2016, p.21) (Fig. 3). The use of technology in this example clearly enhanced the physical experience by adding the element of interactivity to an otherwise traditional performance.

Another example where the physical and digital may support one another and intensify a sensorial experience is 'augmented reality' (AR). This is an extension of virtual reality in which the physical environment is heightened by real-time interaction with the digital, making it a tool which can break the barrier between virtual and actual museums (Li et al, 2011, p.3). Immersive experiences such as these are capable of igniting multiple human senses, thus putting us in touch with our sensorial nature, and result in increased engagement. Although this emerging technology is still in its early days, the examples existing demonstrate this as a potential path for the future presentation of cultural material.

Described by Dazed Digital as "London's biggest public festival of AR art" (Dazed Digital, 2020), the 'Unreal City' AR exhibition featured 36 sculptures arranged as a walking tour along the River Thames (Dazed Digital, 2020). This outdoor exhibition, brought to life through the mobile app, harnesses the current climate of restrictions, where many important cultural sites are closed, and the only public spaces where we can move safely is the outdoors (Eliasson, 2020). Contributing artist, Cao Fei, beautifully captures the future of our museum spaces in her description of the Unreal City:

The boundary between the virtual and the real is becoming obscure, which exists in memory, history, and the interweaving of imagination and reality. With this in mind, we will have a broader understanding of reality, space and temporality. As we come to accept that augmented reality is also part of reality, it will be the multiverse of our future existence and perception (Cao Fei in Dazed Digital, 2020).

Fei's statement here predicts that our art and educational spaces are becoming increasingly digital, outlining that a benefit of this multisensory experience would be widening and deeper awareness. Although this is a huge benefit which ought to be harnessed, I think that one must be wary of fully digital learning experiences. This is because, as evidenced earlier, purely digital learning experiences result in less memory recall, and I also believe they remove a human aspect.

Figure 3: Tan Dun's Passacaglia, 'Secret of Wind and Birds', (2020).

Figure 4: Unreal City AR exhibition by Acute Art and Dazed, 2020.


In today's world, where real-life experiences and genuine human interactions are limited, we find ourselves increasingly appreciative of the few opportunities where we are able to truly connect with others and with our core sensory nature. Affect theory - reinforced by scientific research - evidences that our sensory experiences are crucial to our understanding of different cultures. The phenomenon of being involuntarily provoked back to a memory by a certain sense, widely known as 'Proustian' memory, demonstrates that this is a common occurrence which thus ought to be recognised and translated into educational settings. The most powerful aspect of sense-memories is that one does not need any understanding of the complex philosophies and sciences behind it; it is a tool we can all access, whether consciously or unconsciously. All of our senses can carry us to the past and evoke memories, it is simply a matter of letting oneself be swept away.

With this in mind, it is clear that the current method of presentation of cultural objects does not allow for deep understanding due to restrictive sensory access. Our saturation by, and preoccupation with, the visual sense means that interaction with solely sight has less meaning. I believe that we ought to be able to physically grasp objects, or even smell and taste them, as this would bring them closer to how they were intended to function. Objects have been designed for interaction, boxes for observation, so this sensory nature would bring them closer to their intended use.

As our experience of the world is multisensory by default, audiences, as well as curators, ought to be aware of their surroundings. I encourage audiences to be increasingly aware of the 'neglected' senses which play an equally important role in forming their perceptions. Even factors we may deem to be small, such as the temperature of the room or the hot beverage on our side, can have a huge impact on our overall understanding of whatever we may think we are focused on. This heightened awareness allows for deeper connection with the true present moment.

It is clear that we are at the edge of a crucial decisive stage as our society becomes more digital. Technology can either present a threat or benefit to our essential affectual experiences - it risks neglecting the illustrated value of real-life displays. This is a topic many debate today as schools and universities are forced to provide learning experiences online, which raises questions concerning the adequacy and engaging nature of the digital. I hope that our 'Great Pause' caused by Covid-19 can serve to highlight the importance of engaging the senses and interacting in real-life, rather than have the opposite effect. I believe that there exists a balance in which the digital and physical can exist in harmony; where the benefits of both realms are appreciated and utilised in order to heighten our understanding of each other and the world around us.


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  1. 'The moment of becoming' (Massumi, 2002, p. 12) can be understood as the point at which one is fully immersed in an experience and feeling it fully.