Multisensory Museum: seeing, feeling, smelling and hearing art

The Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven has conducted long-term research into the way in which the museum can be inclusive. To do so, it worked together with people with disabilities, such as blind and deaf visitors and wheelchair users, and learned how they experience and understand spaces. It resulted in the Multisensory Museum, which served as a springboard for Dwarsverbanden (Delinking and Relinking) – the Netherlands first multi-sensory collection presentation.

The ambition to be an inclusive museum has been the wish of the Van Abbemuseum since Charles Esche became its director in 2004. He brought his broad outlook and the non-European orientation to art and is an instigator and guardian of a multi-voiced narrative to which everyone should have access. It makes the museum more inclusive, but also provides a richer experience for all visitors who can now touch, smell and hear artworks.

Title cards in Braille, tactile drawings and tangible replicas

room for experimentation

The grant from the Fund under the Architecture Grant Scheme has been an important springboard, according to Marleen Hartjes, curator and project manager at the Multisensory Museum. ‘It is one of the few funds that offers trust and room for experimentation without the outcome being clear. Without this grant, we would not have dared to conduct long-term research for the Multisensory Museum. TIK-TIK, the app that helps blind or visually impaired visitors visit the museum independently, which was developed with blind designer Simon Dogger, also came from a grant from the Fund.’

working groups and experts by experience

The experiment started in 2016. In order to redefine and redesign the exhibition space, the museum assembled working groups that included Marleen Hartjes, architect Thomas Dirrix, architect Peter-Willem Vermeersch, KU Leuven and other art and culture professionals from outside the museum.

Particularly special was the fact that a group of experts by experience with visual, hearing or mobility impairments was also given a role in the design process. ‘By designing together, we were able to explore the possibility of not only making the programmes more accessible and inclusive, but also investigate how to re-imagine the building from a multi-sensory perspective,’ says Hartjes. ‘Unlike the traditional way of making an exhibition, we let people for whom this is not an everyday activity contribute their ideas and participate. That means we have to rethink and reframe the creative process.’

The Smartify app unlocks all sensory aspects and underlying information in different tours

overall design

The process took two years and was complex. ‘But we learned a lot from the expertise of people with disabilities, which has enriched us,’ says head of collections Steven ten Thije. The wishes and experiences of these groups of experience experts were mapped out and represented by them in models. The architects then brought those ideas together in an overall design.

For instance, wheelchair users needed to be able to navigate more smoothly and understand the space better by designing spaces with flowing lines and rounded shapes and by placing artworks at their eye level. Warmer colours were also chosen, acoustics were improved, and niches with extra lighting were added where people who speak sign language can see each other better. Hartjes subsequently developed the additions to the original works with several external partners. One company provided title cards in Braille and the experience of an artwork was enriched with tactile drawings and tangible replicas in 3D. Simon Dogger, for example, developed an emotional landscape to accompany the artwork Dążenie do doskonałości (Striving for perfection) by Andrzej Wróblewski. Olfactory expert and art historian Caro Verbeek developed a scent journey to go with it, inspired by the artwork, which shows people climbing ladders in impossible ways. Walking through the space, the visitor smells the scent that refers to falling down and getting up (pencil sharpenings), and then smells a second scent that ties in with the interpretation of the image: achieving the unattainable (ozone).

Artworks hanging at eye level of wheelchair users

literally tangible result

The new collection presentation Delinking and Relinking, where Steven ten Thije is one of the compilers, is literally the tangible result of all that has gone before. With 150 artworks spanning all five floors of the museum’s collection wing, this is the first fully multi-sensory collection presentation in the Netherlands. The exhibition, realized with additional funding from the VriendenLoterij and running until 2024, allows visitors to see, feel, smell and hear art. For this purpose, over 40 multi-sensory tools were deployed, including texts in Braille, odour interpretations, music compositions, and tactile objects. The multi-voiced perspective is made even broader by allowing lesser-known or previously unheard voices to speak, for instance people from the queer community. ‘So the multi-sensory perspective is not just integrated into a sub-exhibition, but into the concept of all our exhibitions. It’s the new standard, our new mentality,’ says Ten Thije.

This has generated significant interest from the cultural sector. ‘Colleagues ranging from the Rijksmuseum to small museums at home and abroad are interested in our process. From every type of visitor, feedback has been overwhelmingly positive, as well as from experts with a disability who have collaborated on their dream. The specially developed Smartify app, which unlocks all the sensory aspects and underlying information in various tours, is also extremely well used,’ says a satisfied Ten Thije.

This project was supported in 2017 through the Architecture Grant Scheme.

Text: Viveka van de Vliet

Images: Van Abbemuseum, by Joep Jacobs