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Coming to Our Senses

Our five senses are the portals through which we gather impressions and information. We experience the physical world around us by seeing, hearing, touching, tasting, and smelling it. The more sensorial routes through which we experience things, the more intellectual and emotional routes by which we can know, understand, and recall them.

In addition to the five senses through which we explore the physical world, our “sixth sense” — that of intuition or emotion — provides another way to know or understand, independent of physical evidence. Along with our five senses, our sixth sense allows us to collect, manage, and interpret experience. As educators, we will maximize our visitors’ encounters with collections by intentionally composing learning experiences to have strong sensorial components. Such lessons magnify awareness, assist comprehension, and offer multiple routes for the acquisition, storage, and retrieval of information and ideas.

Use Sensory Experiences

If you saw the theme of this issue and thought, “we can’t provide sensory perceptions beyond that of looking and listening,” or “we can not allow visitors to handle our collection,” this edition of The Docent Educator is dedicated to you. All collections can be examined by constructing multiple-sensory learning experiences. Whether these lessons are accomplished using teaching collections and reproductions, re-created or simulated experiences, or by invoking our visitors’ imaginations, such teaching is always more compelling than is simple listening and looking.

Any extra effort it may take to construct sensory learning experiences will be well rewarded by greater levels of visitor involvement and by the knowledge that you are teaching in a way that appeals to several types of learning styles (sensory, intuitive, kinesthetic, etc.) simultaneously. So, do give it a try!

Teaching Collections and Reproductions

Many institutions devote part of their collection to “hands-on,” activities. Opportunities to inspect and handle add a tactile dimension to investigations. The items used for these activities may be authentic or they may be reproductions. They might consist of samples, casts and molds, skeletal mounts, fabrics, utensils, tools, materials, models, or other examples. Stimuli that appeal to senses other than touch might be such auditory ones such as animal sounds, birdcalls, and music, or olfactory ones like aromas and fragrances.

Many science-oriented facilities provide visitors with opportunities to handle bones, pelts, rocks, and other items that are not essential to their exhibition collection’s integrity. Visitors are allowed to touch, inspect using magnifying glasses and microscopes, and to otherwise closely examine and compare plant matter, minerals, crystals, shells, feathers, teeth, butterfly wings, and other such specimens.

There are zoos, nature centers, and natural history museums that have herpetology labs and insect zoos where visitors can feel the skin of a snake or hold a praying mantis. Botanical gardens may allow visitors to touch tree bark, crush and smell herbs, handle succulents, or compare the feel of various soils.

Historic sites and museums of history may allow visitors to try on reproductions of apparel of the time, or to play period games, or to participate in such activities as making candles or soaps.

Art institutions may offer visitors a chance to manipulate clay, make collages or drawings, hold brushes or other art-making tools, feel incised plates and carvings, or crush minerals to make pigments.

Re-creations and Re-enactments

Museums, historic sites, and other facilities may re-create activities or events that engage visitors’ senses. Visitors may enter galleries where recordings of such things as animal calls, tribal instruments, or period music are played. On certain occasions, battle scenes may be re-enacted at which muskets and other weaponry are fired. And, many institutions dress docents or performers in costume and have them converse and conduct activities in a manner consistent with the interpreted period.

At the Kona Historical Society’s Uchida Coffee Farm, visitors tour a small coffee-producing property and home typical of Japanese immigrants who settled in this area of Hawaii. The visitors’ five senses are brought into play throughout the tour. Tour participants listen to donkeys braying and to chickens clucking.

They handle rice bags used to make clothing. And, upon entering the Uchida family’s house, they are greeted with small samples of foods symbolic of those that would typically be given to greet visitors, such as white rice wrapped in seaweed, or cups of miso soup.

Imaginations Sensory perceptions are so powerful and so much a part of our mental and emotional repertoire that they need not be “actual” to become discernable. How fortunate for those of us who teach! Even when teaching collections or simulations seem impractical or irrelevant, educators can construct multi-sensory lessons by asking visitors to use their imaginations.

Imagine the sounds made by firecrackers. Then, think of what time or place it reminds you of What smells do you associate with this sound, the time, and/or the place? You don’t actually have to hear the sound of firecrackers exploding to respond to these questions. These questions ask you to rely upon previous sensory experiences; they only take a working imagination and memory to respond to them.

Before walking into a tropical rainforest environment in a zoo or arboretum, ask visitors to imagine what they might expect to feel, hear, and smell. Then, once they’ve entered, ask them to confirm which of the sensory experiences they listed are actually present. Do they perceive any sensations that were not accounted for prior to entering? What have they learned about this environment from their sensory observations?

Imagine that the year is 1880. You inhabit this historic house, which was built in the middle of town. What sounds might you hear from your living room windows — horses, carriages, street vendors? What sounds that are familiar to us today would you not hear? What smells would you notice on a hot summer’s day? Why?

Look carefully at a landscape painting. What sounds might you hear if you were there? Listen closely. Can you hear birds, animals, the sound of water, the wind in the trees, the cracking of branches under the weight of heavy snow, or the swishing of feet walking through tall grass? And, come to think of it, what do abstract paintings sound like? Are they all the same, or does each have its own, distinctive rhythms and sounds? Try listening to paintings hung throughout your galleries!

Sit among tribal masks, baskets, tools, or sculptures. Tell visitors a story that relates to the people, things, or images surrounding them in the gallery. Storytelling is a terrific way to engage the imagination and participation of visitors. When told in an elaborate and compelling fashion, stories will bring the listener’s senses along for the ride.From time-to-time, interrupt the story to ask visitors to describe j what they might hear, smell, taste, or feel in the various situations the story portrays.

Make Up Your Own Activities

Docents and other educators have wonderful opportunities to be inventive when developing games and activities that engage the senses of their visitors. Activities that request comparisons work particularly well for this purpose. For instance, here’s an activity I’ve developed called “What’s Your Taste?” After participating in this activity, visitors will have inspected carefully, isolated relevant details or events, described their responses to those details or events, and used their personal creativity to make and define associations.

This activity is set up by explaining to visitors that the taste buds on our tongues can only distinguish four flavors — sweet, sour, bitter, and salty. It is by various combinations of those four flavors that we perceive different tastes. For instance, chocolate is a particular combination of sweet, bitter, and salty whereas citrus is a combination of sour, sweet, and bitter. Next, have your visitors examine a work of art or reflect upon an event of history that you have just discussed. Have them posit what that artwork or time period would “taste” like if they could translate it into flavors and explain why they perceive it in that particular way.

Whether you use teaching collections and reproductions, offer re-creations or re-enactments, or call upon your visitors’ imaginations, creating activities that engage multi-sensory perceptions is exciting, rewarding, and fun. Try creating a game or activity that calls upon your visitors’ senses, and then allow them to find their own personal relationships to your collection. Challenge yourself to think of many sensory possibilities, rather than to be boxed in by restrictions. Though we tend to assume that the world within museums, zoos, and gardens is primarily visual— as the song goes, “It ain’t necessarily so.”

Alan Gartenhaus, Publishing Editor

Gartenhaus, Alan. “Coming to Our Senses,” The Docent Educator 11.2 (Winter 2001-02): 2-5.

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