Forskning ved Københavns Universitet - Københavns Universitet


Atmospheric Smell: hospital-based and museum-staged

Publikation: Bog/antologi/afhandling/rapportPh.d.-afhandlingForskning

  • Anette Stenslund
Today an enriching museum visit is likely to leave a great many visual and increasingly also auditory and tactile impressions. Different genres of museums go about the challenge of engaging visitors sensuously in different ways, and ethnographic museums seem to be at the forefront, whereas fine art museums may show a little more hesitancy in respect of engaging visitors in a diversified sensory display. Nevertheless, the tendency is clear: more and more often, museum-goers are invited to participate in museum activities through various senses, and just since this research project was launched a few years ago innovative multisensory exhibitions seem to have popped up all over, hereby varying the historical predominant visual mode of expression in the museum world.

The evocative power of smell engulfing one’s state of being has also led to an increasing interest being shown in the exploitation of smell in order to add an atmospheric ‘touch’ to the museum visit. Yet, there seem to be some weighty challenges for the museum world to deal with if it is to provide us with olfactory museum experiences in the way it intends. For as enriching as museum-staged olfactory experiences potentially are, they are just as likely to fall flat, turning into some kind of toe-curling gimmick. This challenge seems to reflect a lack of knowledge mirrored in the academic field of museology that fails to account for the context-dependency of smell in experience. We experience smell in accordance with the surroundings in which it occurs; the significance of smell is never static and even the same odorous compounds may be associated very differently when the context changes.

In order to take into account a socio-cultural understanding of the world of odour, this article-based PhD dissertation seeks to expand the knowledge of atmospheric smell sensations within a dual framework including the museum venue and the given everyday culture about which it seeks to communicate with its visitors. The work offers a conceptual discussion of atmospheric smell in situ and ex situ within contemporary medical culture, that is, hospital-based and museum-staged. Prompted by the ambition to acknowledge the museum’s need to have its activities rooted in thorough investigation of the given culture on show, the dual analytical disposition is a sine qua non spanning varied fields and disciplines. The conceptual discussion offered in the thesis is spurred on by philosophical phenomenology predominantly paired with sociological and anthropological theory. It finds support in empirical work from both a hospital and a museum setting. Thus, it draws on a three-month ethnographic fieldwork conducted in 2012 in a Danish hospital, including autoethnographic observations from roughly two hundred and fifty operations with patients and health care providers interacting in the operating theatres. Beyond self-experienced curating, the analysis is further informed by a hundred and fifty short-length visitor interviews conducted in an art gallery.

Conceptually, the thesis suggests how smell is experienced as atmosphere touching mood-wise in accordance with the given situation in which it occurs. In the hospital, neither patients nor doctors in general gave much voice to smell; patients were troubled, worried or confused, and doctors habitually turned their attention away from smell – as skilled inattentive noses – in order to focus on their more important work. Intruding body odours breaching the uniform ‘scentless silence’ of the environment, however, provoked explicit handlings to avoid discomfort observed in the interaction between nurses and patients. Undesirable smells were handled through washing, airing, changing sheets and covering up, but also through the employment of humour demanding from the nurses a socio-cultural competence in controlling the signal value of smell. Moreover, the thesis suggests not only how queries about the material presence or absence of smell show a significance in marking the atmosphere and social interaction between patients and medical health care workers, but also how the presence of absence of smell crucially shows the way in which the hospital atmosphere is perceived as a lack of or longing for homeliness, or is taken as the relief of any unpleasant smell, signalling ‘cleanliness’.

In the museum, in turn, visitors were less troubled, at a distance from the cultural norms of a restricted olfactory hospital environment, plus encouraged by the museum venue to show a raised sensuous awareness. Subsequently, visitor interviews revealed how a museum-staged hospital atmosphere of an art installation was directly addressed owing to its smell. Curiously, this observation speaks against prevailing literature portraying smell as the ‘mute sense’, and what is more, the museum display did not alter smell curatorially. Rather, smell was gestured through non-olfactory effects and it was put in words metonymically, gesturing a reversibly synaesthetic atmosphere of a hospital. Visitor conversations revealed how smell could be poignantly picked up in situ, yet not until frequenting the museum venue ex situ was the olfactory atmosphere of a hospital addressed with greater awareness; relived and digested. Both in situ and ex situ settings were characterised by atmospheric smell experiences that were independent of the material presence of smell.

Over the last decade museology has shown increasing interest in the inclusion of smell in exhibitions, and often questions revolve around how olfactory displays can be technically installed. Phenomenological analysis of atmospheric smell in and ex situ renders the possibility of varying and qualifying this debate. It argues that atmospheric smell is experienced independently of its physical presence. Atmospheric exhibitions smell, but not all smell-based exhibitions are atmospheric. Subsequently, this knowledge holds the potential to enrich the visitors’ engagement with cultures on display.
ForlagSL Grafik
Antal sider216
ISBN (Trykt)978-87-7611-959-1
StatusUdgivet - 2015

Note vedr. afhandling

The defence was awarded the degree of Doctor of Philosophy at Medical Museion, University of Copenhagen, December 2015

ID: 161184829