Coming to Our Senses: The Sensory Turn in Contemporary Art and Ethnographic Museums
The Courtauld Institute of Art, Somerset House, Strand, London
- Professor David Howes: Concordia University, Montreal
- Dr Irene Noy: The Courtauld Institute of Art
This paper begins by charting the emergence of sensory studies as an autonomous field and method of inquiry. Its genesis is traced to the sensory turn in a range of humanities and social science disciplines, which gave rise to such fields as the history of the senses, anthropology of the senses, and, most recently, sensory museology. Incorporating a sensory studies approach into the curation of indigenous artifacts has resulted in a radical transformation of “the exhibitionary complex.” In place of didactic displays which isolate artifacts in glass cases, the emphasis now is on the museum space as a kind of sensory gymnasium in which visitors are invited to experiment with alternate ways of sensing through encounters with objects of diverse provenance. Citing examples which range from Iroquois false face masks to the Inca quipu (a 3-D mnemonic device composed of knotted strings of varying colours), this paper makes a case for sense-based investigations of the varieties of aesthetic experience across cultures. It also reports on some of the findings of the “Mediations of Sensation” project (on which I have been collaborating with Chris Salter, Cheryl l’Hirondelle and others) that has involved creating intercultural, performative sensory environments for the communication of anthropological knowledge, as an alternative to both the ethnographic monograph and ethnographic film. It closes with a consideration of the transformation of display practices in the contemporary art museum, such that art is no longer defined exclusively as that which meets the eye, but rather that which engages multiple senses in all manner of innovative combinations.
David Howes is Professor of Anthropology, Director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies in Society and Culture and Co-Director of the Centre for Sensory Studies at Concordia University, Montreal. His publications range from The Varieties of Sensory Experience (1991) to Ways of Sensing: Understanding the Senses in Society (2014, with Constance Classen.
This lecture is part of the 2015/6 Sackler Research Forum flagship project, What Sense is There in Art?
image caption: yahkâskwan mîkiwahp (aka ‘light* tipi’). ᑭᕀ collective (Cheryl L’Hirondelle and Joseph Naytowhow). Restless Precinct Exhibition – curated by Reena Katz and Aliza Zorlatuna. Guild Sculpture Park, Scarborough Bluffs, 2014. Photo credit: Manolo Lugo