On Sociology, Museums, and the Senses

Last week the interdisciplinary journal Museum & Society (M&S) released their latest issue, entitled “Sociology and Museums,” to which I’m proud to have contributed. As a doctoral student in sociology, my research looks within the organizational field of museums – comparing art museums and botanical gardens – to explore what sociologists gain by investigating the “guts” of museum practice. This is because – in agreement with the M&S editors – I believe that through sociological research on museums we might “expect to see sociology adding something new not only to our knowledge of museums, but also more ambitiously, to our understanding of human society as a whole.”

To date, I’ve explored how museums mediate people’s sensory experience. Museums are an apposite case for exploring sensory experiences because they are organized principally around objects, and people perceive objects through their senses: our experiences of them are not reducible to text. The article I published with M&S, for example, shows if you compare art museums and botanical gardens, you can see differences in what I call “sensory conventions:” the rules that shape how we come to use our senses – and which senses we use – in particular settings. One familiar example of sensory conventions regards how we act in a coffee shop versus a library. In either place, you can work on your laptop, but you know you can’t get away with yammering on your phone in the library. The convention is to be quiet. When it comes to museums, the sensory conventions are similarly well-defined. We look, but we don’t touch.

Or at least, that’s the case with art museums. In botanical gardens, as I show, things are a little more complicated. Plants invite certain kinds of sensory interactions (they smell; they rustle in the breeze) that artworks typically don’t. Further, we value art and natural objects differently, and that impacts whether or not we are permitted to touch them. Compared to more traditional (art, history, natural history) museums, the sensory conventions in botanical gardens are not as clear. Visitor confusion persists even as garden staff try to promote a primarily “hands-off” experience, most often by distinguishing botanical garden from parks.

Plants for the Senses

My article focuses not only on how sensory conventions differ by degree (for example, we can touch more in the gardens, compared to the galleries) but also on how they differ by type. Specifically, in botanical gardens, I find people describe aesthetic experience as being organized around how “things” look: the pleasing, unmediated beauty of natural objects and environments. In art museums, in contrast, people are more likely to say aesthetic experience is about how “to” look. It’s about interpretive observation that can further a person’s appreciation or understanding of an artwork. “Aesthetics” thus means different things across museums but this is not simply because the objects are different, it is also because museum staff choose to organize and interpret objects in particular ways to structure perception. I find these differences in aesthetic understandings extend to the multi-sensory museum experiences staff innovate for visitors with disabilities. While museum staff in the gardens facilitate programs that include plants with interesting textures and pleasing scents, those in the galleries tend to emphasize the senses’ ability to further interpretation. For instance, opportunities to touch provide information on an artwork’s weight and temperature: information that is not necessarily visually discernible.

How does all of this inform our understanding of “human society as a whole”? For one, as museums innovate their practices to be more engaging and accessible to diverse audiences, studying sensory conventions can tell us something about how organizational change happens. While external conditions no doubt shape what museums do, the local meanings and material cultures of museums also influence how these institutions differently evolve the “look, don’t touch” rule into more hands-on experiences. Further, looking at the museum-going experiences of visitors with disabilities reveals the assumptions embedded in sensory conventions. Such conventions shape the kinds of perceptual experiences that are possible in a given space – including in museums – and shows how such opportunities vary across the forms of bodily difference we call disability.

C. Wright Mills famously described the sociological imagination as “the vivid awareness of the relationship between personal experience and the wider society.” Sociologists contend such awareness can promote more informed choices and deepen understanding of their effects. Accordingly, the 13 articles in M&S’s “Sociology and Museums” issue aim to foster readers’ sociological imagination of museums while also encouraging a more intentional approach to museum practice. I hope you check it out!

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