Bodysnatchers: getting physical in museums

When I saw Frederick Wiseman’s film, The National Gallery (2014), I was shocked to discover that when many people look at paintings, they don’t look like they’re having a good time. They are stock still and staring, then shuffling a bit, then still and staring again. No wonder people who don’t go to galleries assume it’s all a bit dull and boring. How it looks from the outside is absolutely no measure of how it feels. When I’m wandering around a gallery, I am really, genuinely, properly happy. It’s thrilling to discover an artwork that I’ve only previously seen in reproduction; I love works that make me laugh out loud or shed a tear; my skin creeps and I feel a bit unwell when I see grisly or gruesome subject matter; and some artworks are so beautiful it pains me to leave them. Galleries evoke (and provoke) a whole gamut of emotions and sensations, the experience is not just one of mental stimulation and knowledge acquisition, it’s physical too.

The ol’ mind vs body argument goes back a long way (Plato’s Phaedo) and there are plenty of fabulous words – such as ‘somatic’ (relating to the body rather than the mind) and ‘corporeal’ (relating to the body rather than the spirit) – that reinforce the distinction. Dualism also exerts an influence over how we engage audiences with museums and galleries. I can think of plenty of examples of programming that feed the mind – talks, tours, lectures, courses, discussions and film-screenings – and there are plenty more that are tactile/kinaesthetic and improve fine-motor skills and dexterity – practical workshops, handling sessions and drop-in making activities to name a few. Programmes involving the whole body are thinner on the ground and tend to be dominated by cross-disciplinary practice, where dance and theatre practitioners are responding to the museum context. This is an observation rather than a complaint – there’s a lot to be learnt from other artforms that are more attuned to the body, movement and temporality. I’d love to see more programming that heightens visitors’ awareness of the physical experience of looking at art and moving through a museum – it exerts such a quiet but powerful influence over our engagement.

When I think back on artworks that have been memorable as physical experiences, only a handful come to mind. Carsten Holler’s slides at Tate Modern in 2007 (‘Test Site’) proved to be so popular that the experience was as much about queuing as it was about sliding. Because I’m a lily-livered wuss, I only managed the little slide in the Turbine Hall and that was plenty; it definitely raised my pulse. In 2000 and again in 2006, Ikon Gallery in Birmingham displayed ‘Observation Deck’ by Patrick Killoran. To experience the artwork, viewers were required, one at a time, to lie on their backs on a sliding shelf and get gently rolled out of a window, head-first, on the horizontal and at a right angle to the building. I can’t remember how much of me was poking outside, it felt like from the waist up, but was probably more like head and shoulders. It was the most thrilling experience to just stare up at passing clouds and the architectural detail and ponder my possibly imminent demise as the window was a couple of storeys above street level. These two examples probably say quite a bit about me; as someone who gets vertigo, anything involving heights is more likely to stick in my memory than experiences played out closer to the ground.

Thinking about museum learning programming that prioritises the physical, there are some interesting examples (and I’d love to hear more please). Yoga in museums is a growing trend, and the Dancing Museums project is a wonderful European partnership (enjoy those while they last, thanks again Brexit!) that explores new forms of engagement with artworks through movement. While I was researching the Dallas Museum of Art for my Churchill Fellowship, I stumbled across a blogpost about their ‘sensory sacks’, also known as ‘spatial socks’. As the name suggests, the sack/sock is a stretchy fabric tube – a gigantic pillowcase that’s large enough to fit a person. The sensory sack was created to improve spatial awareness and for use in therapy, supporting those with a sensory processing disorder and/or autism. In the museum, participants re-create the form of sculptures in the collection by posing inside the sensory sack. I love the idea of understanding sculpture from the inside out – through the use of the sensory sack, participants transition from being outside the sculpture, understanding the form visually, to being inside the sculpture, pushing up under its skin and understanding the form physically. It’s so simple and elegant, and the experience must generate such different memories from the standard looky-talky model.

While I was noodling around the web looking for examples of museum learning programming that are more physical, I skimmed across all sorts of theories, ideas and approaches that span visual and performing arts, such as somatic theory, affect theory, performative and participatory practice, and the sensory museum. A useful review, in the Journal of Conservation and Museum Studies, of Helen Rees Leahy’s book, Museum Bodies: The Politics and Practices of Visiting and Viewing (2012), shares lots of interesting concepts and provides links for further reading. If you know of any other great examples, please drop me a line.


4 thoughts on “Bodysnatchers: getting physical in museums

  1. This article is very interesting. My approach as museum educator is to involve the whole body of participants. When I say embodiment in art education I mean to engage body, mind, emotions, sensations, personal memories and imagination.


    1. Thanks Marco – really good point that we are more than ‘above neck/below neck’ and there are so many wonderful and complex things in play when we visit museums. I hope to post about tacit knowledge some time soon – another related area that I find fascinating.


  2. I am enjoying your wide-ranging thought-provokers that plop into my inbox each week. This one particularly delighted me. This is exactly what we are offering with our mindfulness and art sessions at the National Gallery. As part of the mindful looking we explicitly invite people to notice what they feel in their bodies – often it surprises people to discover the wonder and deep pleasure they are experiencing. The mindfulness practice helps them to let go of all their intellectual questions and thoughts about the painting that get in the way of them just experiencing it. And as they ‘clock’ it in their bodies, their pleasurable experiences deepens.

    We then invite them to imagine themselves inside the painting and imagine what they would smell, touch, taste, see, feel, hear. Again, and maybe not surprisingly, folk find this greatly enhances their experience of looking and being with the painting.

    Taking it further we offer participants a chance to draw their response to the painting – again in a mindful way – ie one that is not about outcome, but about the very satisfying process of mark-making in response to your experience of the painting. The experience of intimacy with and delight in the painting grows.

    I’ve been surprised again and again by how much mindful looking and drawing touches people very deeply. I find it takes courage to lead the sessions as a lot of the time we are in silence and you don’t really know what is going on, but then in the evaluation you see how the silence has woven its magic. But then, why wouldn’t it – many of us don’t realise we are starved of it.

    Each session we run is slightly differently, with specific themes, and include elements of fun and play as they are enjoyable! and also help us be less attached to outcome.

    Thanks again for your posts

    and all the best in all you are doing



    1. Thanks so much Sue for your wonderful description of your sessions – I can totally picture how blissed out visitors must feel after such a personal and focussed experience. Thanks for the words of support too – always much appreciated!


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