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exhibits

Paintings in Sight and Smell

A recent exhibition “Smell the Art: Fleeting – Scents in Colour” at the Mauritshuis in Amsterdam, was advertised as engaging the sense of smell to enhance the visual aspects of viewing the art. Although I did not travel to Europe to experience the show first-hand, I found it mentioned in various museum-related newsletters.

The idea of adding scent to an exhibit is intriguing, but I wonder how much more enriching the show would have been if it had also included tactile and audio elements. This post explores my questions about the choice of smell as the highlighted sensory output. My knowledge of the show is limited to the information on the museum’s website, and I do not know all the design considerations that shaped its’ creation.

Museum guests were encouraged to experience smells by using different “scent dispensers”. The smells included “a clean linen cupboard, bleaching fields, ambergris, myrrh and … the foul-smelling canals.”.

The exhibition included 50 paintings and drawings. The scents invoked by these artworks were grouped into different categories including:

•            “health and hygiene”

•            “scent in religion” (incense)

•            “scents inside and outdoors” (aromas of newly-discovered spices)

I imagine that If I attended this exhibition, I would have been left with very fleeting impressions of the artwork. The scent, by itself, would not have provided enough information for me to understand the artwork. I would not have known who, or what, was pictured in each painting.

If I were designing a similar exhibit, I would have included visual descriptions of them (accessed in some form of audio tour or mobile guide). Then, I would have included touch objects like a model canal boat, or a church bell, etc. Maybe I would have added audio effects triggered by motion sensors in front of the paintings.

My comments are not intended as a critique of the exhibit. I am just brainstorming hypothetical design elements.

As it was conceived, the exhibition made art approachable from two of the five human senses. In my opinion, adding tactile and audio components would have made the show much more immersive.

In summary, I commend the designers for adding a second sensory output to the experience of art. I hope that “Smell the Art: Fleeting – Scents in Colour” will be the first of many multi-sensory art exhibitions displayed at large, well-known museums. I hope that its’ successors will incorporate tactile and audio outputs that engage visitors in a more truly multi-sensory experience.