MULTISENSORY MET MUSEUM

In a museum space, perception of the exhibited material is limited to the sense of vision.  However, the overall experience we get from a museum visit is created by the collaboration of multi modal perception; the combination of all sensory inputs (visual, olfactory, auditory, gustatory and tactile) processed by all sensory systems. Thus, the overall feel of the museum space is almost as important as the material exhibited. For example, the smell of the museum environment can change the perception of a painting drastically, since the sense of smell can carry many memories and emotions for an individual. To enhance the visual perception of the art pieces, museum spaces, including the Met museum, are made to have a neutral smell and sound. 

In my project, I try to make use of the sensual inputs other than visual, instead of trying to minimize their effects on the museum guests. I believe that creating a multisensory environment will enhance the overall effect of a piece of art rather than limiting it. As the observer in a museum, I can assume everybody had the urge to touch the art pieces or smell and taste them, at one point. In a museum where it is strictly forbidden to have any physical interaction with an art piece, the experience of a visitor is limited. Getting my inspiration from these limitations, I decided to try and create a more fulfilling experience for a museum visitor, which is satisfactory for multiple senses, not just the visual.

My Project from Met Media Lab Intern Expo

My Project from Met Media Lab Intern Expo

  • Multisensory Booklet

As an initial idea, I made a multisensory booklet for the visitors to carry around as they observe the art at the Met. The booklet contains sound and smell, as an additional aid for the visuals, which would be activated through touch. Images of the art pieces exhibited are shown on the booklet, so that as the visitor observes each given piece in the museum, he/she can interact with the image on the booklet. 

When certain parts of the image are touched, it would create a certain sound and release a certain smell (like a scratch and sniff sticker). For example, an image of the sea could smell like the sea, or a more abstract representation of an object could have a smell that represents the feeling the user might get while observing the image.

  • Multisensory sculptures

A second iteration for my idea was based on the African Department at the Met. When I visited this department, I was very fascinated by the beautiful figures. I was particularly interested in the Power Figure (Nkisi N'Kondi: Mangaaka) and had the urge to touch and smell it mainly because of the variety of materials it is made of (wood, metal, resin, shell) and the materials added on the figure during rituals ( medicines, magical substances called “bilongo”, earth taken from burial sites, white clay taken from riverbeds, nails, blades and other hardware ). 

Power Figure (Nkisi N'Kondi: Mangaaka)

Power Figure (Nkisi N'Kondi: Mangaaka)

I created a small replica of the power figure which would be tactile and include some smell and sound. I used clay and metal (nails) to form the figure, since they were materials included in the actual sculpture and they were easy to use for prototyping. 

Clay replica of Power Figure (Nkisi N'Kondi: Mangaaka)

Clay replica of Power Figure (Nkisi N'Kondi: Mangaaka)

In further iterations, a better sound design can be made for each sculpture represented. I also added some essential oil on top of the sculpture, to create a natural smell that could be possibly included in the actual power figure. My aim in this iteration was to engage people in the actual use cases of these figures. Even if the observer cannot be a part of an actual Kongo ritual, they can touch and smell the object which is used in those rituals and kept as a sacred object. The sound is an added element just to create the sense of power of the figurine, which I think can add a lot to the overall  interaction and experience.

  • Material Book

Some useful feedback I got for my “Multisensory Sculpture” idea was that creating a replica is always risky in the sense that it never fully represents the actual piece. Even if I decide to 3D print every object, any small flaw or even the change of size takes something away from the art piece. As a result, I changed the idea a little bit, removing the replication process and keeping the natural materials to speak for themselves.

Material Book is a booklet that includes little pieces of material that are used in the figures and sculptures of Senufo people from the African Department. Visitors can carry this book around while observing the sculptures and interact with the pieces of material in the booklet with each page corresponding to one piece of art. They can play around with the materials to have a better sense of what it would feel like to interact with the object itself. 

Material Book

Material Book

Oracle Figure (Kafigeledjo)

Oracle Figure (Kafigeledjo)

For the Oracle Figure (Kafigeledjo), I created a page of materials. I included wood, iron, porcupine quills, feathers and commercially woven fiber. I could not include bones and organic material, but I put some clay and home-made Play-Doh to replace them in the prototype. This was an interesting experiment since people cannot see the exact materials used in a sculpture without taking a very detailed look at it. Having the materials clean and open in front of them is a much easier way for them to actually have a feel of the art piece. 

  • Scratch and Sniff Paintings

The first part of my project was focused on African sculptures and how to put them into a multisensory museum experience. In the second part, I decided to focus on paintings and how the make paintings more interactive for the user. 

Scratch and Sniff Paintings take their inspiration from the scratch and sniff stickers. I think this is a very simple and effective way of adding smell to an object. It is also safe in a museum space since the smell is trapped inside the object and does not dissolve to the environment. 

Scented Powder Material

Scented Powder Material

As a prototype, I created the home-made version of the scratch and sniff stickers, using powder fragrances, incenses and spices to give the scent. I stuck them on different parts of the image of a painting, with a stamp pad, So that different parts of the painting would give different scents. For example, for the painting “Garden at Sainte-Adresse” by Claude Monet, I decided to use some floral scents, sea and spicy cocoa. All scents were put in specific place on the painting, since in real life we can smell different scents from different objects, places and directions. 

Garden at Sainte-Adresse

Garden at Sainte-Adresse

  • Sound Paintings

As a further experimentation, I decided to use sound in paintings, which would be activated with touch. I used another Monet painting for my first prototype, “Jean Monet (1867–1913) on His Hobby Horse”.

Jean Monet (1867–1913) on His Hobby Horse

Jean Monet (1867–1913) on His Hobby Horse

I used arduino and wave shield for the sound and created a switch inside for each element in the painting, so that when one of them is touched a specific sound comes out. The switch is made with two layers of copper sheets, one sheet connected to the ground and the other connected to the power pin on the arduino. One of the layers is divided into four pieces, cut in the shape of four elements from the painting; the horse, the child , the ground and nature. I put resistors in between each piece to differentiate them as different switched. So when one of the four elements is pressed, the specific switch is activated, which plays the corresponding wav. file. I used four different sounds, an ambient nature sound for the background, a child talking, a horse sound and a carriage sound. 

Switch made with copper sheets and resistors

Switch made with copper sheets and resistors

  • Conclusion

This experience at the MediaLab allowed me to connect my areas of expertise, my interests and the possibilities of a great museum environment. The Multisensory Met project started from my personal interest in multisensory experiences and opened up new possibilities for the museum environment such as new solutions for accessibility, new ways for educational use and a more engaging user experience at the Met. 

Met Media Lab was a very progressive environment where I learned about technologies, used many resources and had the chance to collaborate with many different people from different departments of the museum, such as the Education, Accessibility and African Arts departments. I hope to continue working on this project to make it a useful element for the Met Museum.