The Smelly Museum?

For my Museums and Digital Technology class, not only are we meant to keep our own blogs but we are also encouraged to read our classmates posts. I follow some of my classmates on their various blog formats and therefore I received an email saying that Erica Daudelin had updated her blog and I went to go and read it. Erica’s post this week discusses Augmented Reality at the Royal Ontario Museum, which is really cool and you should go and read about it here. Erica’s post got me thinking, however, about what else is out that that could be beneficial to a museum visit that enables visitors to contextualize works better.


More often than not, when I go to a museum I have this incredible urge to touch everything and that goes against all my years of museum visits and what I continually preached as a museum docent over the summer. Perhaps that’s my desire to know more about objects that are so heavily protected I can’t even see the finer details of the object. There is so much to learn about an object that cannot be understood from a distance and requires closer contact. It is one thing to look at an object and read what its purpose was but it is another entirely to hold an object, feel its weight, or even smell it.


Smell is something that isn’t really thought about during a museum visit but smell is so important to memory making and contextualization. I know that every time I walk by someone smoking a cigar, or I smell some butterscotch, I immediately think back to my grandfather’s old house, a place I haven’t been in fifteen years. Now think about the last time you were in a museum, was there any smell that connected you to a different time or place? The answer is most likely no, and that is because most of the objects are sitting behind glass cases. Modern museums are built to preserve the objects they house, and more often than not, they remove objects from their original context in the name of that preservation/conservation.


But what if someone could harness the smell of objects, preserve them, and make them reproducible in order to create a truer interaction with those objects?  Scientists such as Cecilia Bembibre at University College London are working on cataloging object smells. An online article from Atlas Obscura posted earlier this month discusses Bembibre’s work with preserving smells of “historic locations and objects around England.” The article explains just how Bembibre goes about collecting her smell samples and then runs them through both “a gas chromatographer and mass spectrometer, which [Bembibre] describes as a ‘big nose.’”  These two machines enable Bembibre to have a recipe of sorts for recreating the smell in the future.


While there is much about smells that is subjective, this could offer a wonderful opportunity to museums or historic sites. Being able to recreate an exact smell of an object and allow visitors to smell it while still keeping the original artifact safe could offer a new dimension to the standard museum visit. This technology could potentially also offer visitors the chance to connect on a personal level to an object in new ways. There are so many possibilities for this technology in the future, I just hope someone tries to take advantage of it.

Let’s Get Digital?

When I think about museums, I don’t typically think about all of the digital technology that creates the most memorable experience. There are so many aspects that are taken for granted when the modern visitor enters the museum, or even before they step in the door. Think about your last museum visit, any type of museum will do. How did you know when it opened? Did you look and see what the exhibitions currently were? If you needed tickets, did you buy them in advanced? Its pretty likely you checked the museum’s website for all of these questions. There is already so much information about a museum ready at your fingertips without even entering a physical building. That doesn’t even begin to cover what digital technology is at play once you arrive at the museum. Things like security, climate control, member services, audio guides, Wifi and so much more are influencing how you experience a museum.

In an increasingly digital/technological world, visitors expect a certain level of the present to be incorporated in the “old world” of museum visiting. For many, museums are meant to be a break with the everyday, a way to transport yourself to another world and time. What is the museum’s place in the 21st century if the visitor has the outside world sitting in their back pocket in the form of a cellphone?  It is not enough to come to a museum and look at objects through glass because nine times out of ten, that exact object can be seen in HD on a computer in the comfort of your own home. Museums are now tackling how to get visitors truly engaged with the objects lining its walls, even if that means bringing the outside world in.


My most recent experience with digital technology in the museum setting was at my last trip to the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of Natural History (NMNH) this past Sunday. I didn’t plan on going to the museum that day, and I definitely wasn’t planning on writing a post about its use of technology throughout the galleries but my class discussion in Museums and Digital Technology this week got me thinking about how museums are embracing, or not, the digital age. More importantly, it got me thinking about if this incorporation of digital technology really enhanced my experience at the Museum of Natural History.

Views of the David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins crowded with Museum visitors.
The David H. Koch Hall of Human Origins at the National Museum of Natural History

It had been a very long time since my last visit to NMNH and I wasn’t really sure what they had on display so I first check their website (linked above) to see if this was really the museum I wanted to visit that day and just how late they were open.  Already I was experiencing the museum’s first layer of digital technology and interacting with their most obvious digital presence. Upon arrival however, NMNH’s digital presence became a lot subtler.

Throughout the Hall of Human Origins, I encountered signs encouraging me to touch casts and models of different skulls and bones that were found throughout the world. Although not an obvious use of digital technology, some machine had to copy the original bones and then another machine was responsible for fabricating them into a durable material.

As I continued to wander through these galleries I came across a few touch screens that allowed visitors to learn a little more about certain subjects. These screens were not massive of widely advertised; instead they were tucked into the text panels in front of large display cases. They were there as an additional resource if a visitor wanted, but could easily be ignored or overlooked by someone breezing through a gallery.

While I think these touch screens offer an opportunity to learn more, I found some of them frustrating to work with. More often than not, these touch screens were not very reactive and I found myself jabbing my finger at the screen in order to go to a different screen. Instead of being able to easily learn about how lions hunt in the savannah, for example, I spent most of my time figuring out where the screen thought my finger was so I could compensate and click on the information I wanted.  Perhaps that comes with being a very well-visited institution that deals with numerous visitors a week.  Machines get worn out, touch screens often need to be re-calibrated, or maybe there was something on my fingers that made it hard to recognize on the screen. Whatever it was, the interactive touch screens definitely can aid in enhancing a learning experience (if you can get past the potential frustrations).

Of all the screens and models I walked past during my visit, I never encountered a wait time to use or touch something except in the Hall of Human Origin. Right next to the 3D models of our genetic ancestors were two photo booths that allowed visitors to see what they would look like as one of our ancestors with the option to email the image to yourself after. On two monitors in between the photo booths, images of past visitors rotated on the screens with the most notable facial features super-imposed over the grinning faces of visitors. I must admit, I was curious about what I would look like as an ancient human, so I began to wait in line along with about seven other people. After 5-10 minutes, however, I hadn’t really moved in line and the intrigue had worn off so I went on my way and explored the rest of the museum.

The irony of the only place in the museum encouraging a photograph having a waiting line is not lost on me. Instead of waiting in line to get to touch an object, people are willing to line up to take a picture with what is basically a Snapchat filter. What does that say about us a visitors? The notion of “the selfie” has become so mainstream that having a photo to prove that you went somewhere, rather than just enjoying the experience of being there has altered how we interact with the world around us. Instead of trying to break with this notion of “pics or it didn’t happen” and keep the museum visit about interacting with the objects, it seems that NMNH is trying to embrace the digital age one selfie at a time.

I just can’t help but wonder what this means for the museum purists like myself. Will my preference for the object-based learning and exploration be pushed aside for the addition of photo booths and touch screens that might not work?

Here we go

Congrats on finding your way here and welcome to my first ever blog!


I must admit I’m not entirely sure how this how blogging thing is supposed to work, so please bear with me as I stumble through it and figure out exactly what it is I want to say. I guess we can start with the super basic first: I’m Amanda, originally from Connecticut but I’ve just moved to Washington, DC for graduate school in Museum Studies. This past May I graduated from Tufts University in Medford, MA with a degree in Art History and I couldn’t have asked for a better experience there. It was in those classes that I began thinking about museum spaces and how we, as visitors, experience that space. I have always felt comfortable in a museum, especially art museums, and over my four years at Tufts I spent countless hours wandering the galleries of the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. It brought me great comfort to see works of art I could easily identify and I would spout information about to anyone willing to listen. It was with visits with my more science-math focused friends, however, that really got me to realize my comfort in a museum wasn’t necessarily the norm. While I was willing to spend hours among artifacts of the past, some of my friends were fidgety after 30 minutes. This got me thinking about what made my experience in a museum so different from theirs.

Ironically, it was my experience abroad that really brought the visitor experience question into focus for me. I spent the spring of my Junior year at the University of Edinburgh in Edinburgh, Scotland and spent most of my free time wandering around the old city. On an almost daily basis, I walked past St. Giles’ Cathedral and was always impressed by its towering size and Gothic architecture. When I finally went in, it wasn’t like any church I had ever been in and I was instantly confused and intrigued. What should have been (at least in my mind) a very clear-cut cruciform church with a closed off area for the high altar and choir was incredibly open and missing a choir all together. Because of this open space I felt able to walk around freely, choosing to roam around the space as I chose to, all the while thinking about how this space got to be this way. When I visited St. Patrick’s Cathedral in Dublin, Ireland, I encountered a more “traditional” church plan but felt far more closed off in the space. These two visits inspired me to write my Senior Thesis on these two churches and their histories leading up to the Protestant Reformation. Both churches underwent changes, both architecturally and decoratively, that altered the way visitors experienced the space. Through this year long project, I came to realize that it is more than just the architecture that controls how we interact with a space and what we take away from a visit.


So to make this story a little bit longer, my Senior Thesis is what really solidified my interest in visitor experience and inspired me to apply to The George Washington University’s Masters in Museum Studies Program.  My goal with this blog is to discuss how different aspects of museums (all museums, not just art museums) create a lasting and educational experience. As a full disclosure, the first set of posts will be focusing on digital technologies within the museum world and grappling with the benefits and complications that come with a growing tech-oriented world because I’m currently taking a course on that subject. This class may have been the reason behind starting my blog, but that doesn’t mean I’ll stop as soon as this class is over.


Sorry, but you’re stuck with me now!