Freewrite #2: On Smell

Museums and heritage institutions, for so long dominated by sight – at least, for much of the twentieth century – are beginning to return to the multisensory nature which they appear to have had prior to the late eighteen hundreds. Tactility and aurality dominate in the museum and gallery experience, but at heritage sites such as Warwick Castle, smell and taste (they host historically themed dinners and have Tussuad’s recreations of the medieval period) also play a part.

Scent, for many people, is crucial to life experience. Personally, I have always had a relatively strong sense of smell – I am first made aware of any impending sickness bug, for instance, by an increasing sense of a metallic, irony tang to the air, and its blood-like taste on my tongue. Scent follows and leads – alerts us to danger or some localised trauma, and attracts us to food. Chemical differences in consumable goods can be detected through smell – anyone experienced in tasting or making coffee, tea or whiskey will tell you as much.

I love scent. Scent is another way of telling – a psychological, emotional and physical form of expression, beyond words, which taps into a very old, animalistic part of the brain. Scent speaks – of the environment, of experience, of the body, of the object. Can it be embraced as part of the museum and gallery experience, beyond recreating the manure of the Middle Ages? I hope so.

Freewrite #1: When pretend is so good it becomes reality

Pretend City Children's Museum, Irvine, CA

Pretend City Children’s Museum, Irvine, CA

This freewrite post was prompted by Toner Stevenson. I’m not sure it’s what she intended me to write about – but I hope it’s interesting anyway. Just as a reminder, I write about each prompt in ten minutes, and though this is typed from a written text I’ve kept any errors and idiocies. 

Let me know what you think. Let’s chat about this.

What do we mean by ‘pretend’? Pretend is that which is not real, which is imagined. Which is not, but is enacted as though it is. In museums and heritage what is pretend? Is it the reenactments and costumed interpreters you find at Mary Arden’s House? Is it the videos one might see illustrating a battle? Is it the audioclip recalling WWI that play in booths at Liverpool Museum?

Or is it the whole thing? The whole enactment of heritage? The history books, the TV documentaries, the arrangements of objects and stories told in museums?

Of course, these things may be fact, or based upon uncovered facts, but their representation is always a sjuizet, always a telling, an arrangement, an imagining, a form of pretend.

Because telling is never real. Not really, really. Telling – which is to some degree the way we see the world – is always a form of pretend. Because viewing ‘reality’ through our flawed eyes, we are become imagineers.

In museums, pretend is both the wonderment and the danger. Because the ways in which museums have presented reality have become so ingrained and successful we have forgotten they are pretend. Forgotten they are tellings which modify the facts museums tell us. Present becomes reality, in as much as it is thought to be true.

There is a need to recognize the pretending of museums for what it is – no more or less than the wonder in the eyes of a child, staring into an infinite cosmos.