Explore “The Senses” Now at Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian

A new art exhibit in New York City is taking an innovative approach to how our brains receive and experience sights, sounds, textures, scents, and even taste. The Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in the city’s Upper East Side is open to the public now through October 28 and is definitely worth a visit, no matter your age or background in science.

At “The Senses: Design Beyond Vision,” visitors are encouraged to take an active role in the various installations that test—and play with—the human body’s five classical senses. From a faux fur-covered wall that responds to touch with orchestral sounds, to wooden chairs that use patterns of vibrations to evoke oddly specific sensations (such as “getting zipped up” or “the needle on a sewing machine”), the multi-sensory experiences achieved by artists reminds guests of the brain’s powerful ability to process information.


Running your hand along the synthetic fur—or rolling along the wall with your whole body—creates melodies by stringed instruments. The Tactile Orchestra, created by Studio Roos Meerman and KunstLAB Arnhem. Photo: Scott Rudd


“Snow Storm,” by Christopher Brosius, is part of the exhibition’s Tactile Expression theme, where visitors interact physically with products and environments. Photo: Scott Rudd


A personal favorite, Eric Gunther’s “Seated Catalog of Feelings” immerses visitors in a multi-sensory experience using a wooden chair, transducers and electronics, headphones, and projectors.  Image courtesy of Sosolimited

“Across all industries and disciplines, designers are avidly seeking ways to stimulate our sensory responses to solve problems of access and enrich our interaction with the world,” Caroline Baumann, director of the museum, said in a release for the exhibit. The inclusive environment created for the exhibition features over 40 touchable objects, as well as audio and visual descriptions of every display to ensure that visitors of all abilities feel welcomed.


The Sensory Theater (designed by Studio Joseph) features eight short films, including an animation that visualizes the sounds of birds and insects. Audio descriptions make these videos accessible to people with vision loss. Photo: Matt Flynn

The exhibition layout is arranged by themes, including an introduction to the senses (where the furry wall can be found); Sensory City; Tactile Library; Shaping Sound; Sensory Appetite; and Senses and Cognition. The museum’s goal is to leave visitors with a heightened understanding of how our different senses work together to shape the meaning of products, space, and media.

To learn more about the senses, find our Brain Briefs on the Somatosensory System, smell and taste, vision, and hearing.

– Seimi Rurup

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