Some nuggets from ‘The Deepest Sense’

Birthday reading this year included ‘The Deepest Sense’ by Constance Classen. It’s really good; academic whilst still being eminently readable. The aim of the book is to trace a cultural history of the senses in Western Europe, starting from the mediaeval period up until the present day.

The book begins then by interrogating a range of sources to build up a picture of the lived experience of people in mediaeval Europe and the sensory content of that experience. This also includes reflecting on the differences in how religious art would have been experienced between then and now. What comes out of this is that vision is not the dominant sense in this period: people lived in much closer contact with each other and with the world. Smell, taste and touch all had important roles to play.

However, there are 2 topics that Classen discusses which are relevant to this blog/project:

Firstly, Classen explores the possible pathways that led to the contemporary dominance of vision in the Western hierarchy of the senses. This is interesting because many authors have posited the idea that this dominance of vision is a cultural artefact and that other cultures have other hierarchies but I haven’t encountered anyone who has conclusively demonstrated this. Classen, in contrast, proposes a reasonable set of circumstances that changed the way that people lived their lives and, as a consequence, why touch in particular was demoted. In summary, increasing separation between the classes and increasing literacy in the higher classes changed social interactions and caused people to live less communal lives. The various plagues and the concomitant fear of contagion meant that touch became much more dangerous and sight became safer. Ideas about how we should explore and experience the world also changed. These changes took place from the 17th and into the 19th centuries.

Secondly, Classen explores how the emergence and development of museums and museum practice interacted with these changing ideas about appropriate behaviour for museum visitors. There are some oft quoted writings that showed how early visitors thought it quite normal to handle museum objects. And, in the case of botanical gardens, taste the plants! Early scientists such as Robert Hooke (one of my heroes!) urged people to explore and understand the world using all their senses and visitors embodied this in their habits. Touch and holding led to a fuller understanding of, and/or emotional / empathetic engagement with, objects and their histories. Classen notes that early in the history of museums objects were not seen as inviolable, especially as the conditions of storage meant that objects were not expected to live indefinitely so any worries about damage through handling were secondary. Furthermore, visitors were received by curators as house-guests so older conventions of hospitality were seen to apply. Across the 18th century, in particular, this changed so that eventually touching was seen as inappropriate and concerns about an object’s longevity became more significant.

This discussion is interesting in that it frames current museums’ practices as cultural constructs and therefore subject to change. This is not to say that we should go back to older, more hands-on, ways of visiting. The increased numbers of visitors and the science and technology of conservation makes this suggestion unrealistic. However, knowing that practices have been different in the past opens up some space to say that they could be different in the future.


About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
This entry was posted in museums, object handling, Objects, touch. Bookmark the permalink.

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