How does heritage feel?

Stuart Spurring, Sensory Trust

As I squelch along the wide paths in Kings Wood I am waiting for a mounted Tudor nobleman to come thundering through trailed by hounds in pursuit of a not too distant deer. As my boots pull in the mud I cannot see any houses, hear any planes nor smell any cars. The quiet is broken by cawing crows and my own sucking bootsteps. My sight is crowded by ages-old trees in every direction and leaves lie rotting on the grounds giving off a deeply familiar, cold and comforting smell. In my mind that dog barking on its post lunch walk becomes a hunting hound and the wind carries the smoke from a manor house fire. In the moment these woods look, smell, sound and feel positively medieval.

These are some of the sensory experiences that build my attachment to Kings Wood, the smells, the sounds, the feel of the ground underfoot. Experiences such as these are the key to anyone’s emotional response to a place, and they build our connection to our natural and historic environments. These are the experiences that we want to explore, share and, to a certain extent, exploit. They have been at the heart of the work of the Sensory Trust for many years and inspired the development of sensory mapping as a technique for analysing and enhancing visitor experiences.

Sensory mapping is a simple, flexible technique that identifies sensory highlights with a view to creating inclusive and engaging visitor experiences. It essentially consists of individuals or small groups exploring a location and mapping where they encounter particularly strong sensory stimuli, including, but not limited to sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes. Mapping can also make note of other things people experience in response to these sensory experiences such as emotions, feelings and memories.

The Sensory Trust has always explored the experiences of visitors of all abilities. We look beyond physical access and advise how engaging the senses is a fantastic way to create a more inclusive as well as a more engaging visitor experience. We often talk about accessibility being about achieving an equality of experience; ensuring that the features, facilities, stories and qualities that create the sense of a place are available to all visitors and give everyone the same opportunity to experience and connect with an environment.

It is how sensory experiences and emotional responses create an experience, how they influence people’s connection to a place or a story and how they create lasting memories that is so fascinating. As Malnar and Vodvarka explain in Sensory Design (University of Minnesota Press, 2004), “It is sensation – mediated by experience and culture – that shapes our responses to spaces.”

There is a well established link between sensory engagement and learning with much known about different styles learning and the effectiveness of multi sensory techniques in education. A common response to this is to simply deliver the same information to a different sense, to use an audio guide instead of an interpretation board for example. However, there is also evidence of the effect that emotional connection and engagement have on learning which would suggest a value in a more creative, emotionally engaging approach.

“Emotion appears to increase the salience of information much like a highlighter increases the salience of text. In short, emotion makes memory better” (Levine, L. and Pizarro, D. (2004) Emotion and memory research: a grumpy overview. Vol. 22, no. 5: 530-55)

Mapping sensory highlights and low points combined with exploring the associations, memories and emotions people experience will help you to understand your site and where and how it connects emotionally with your visitors - how it makes them feel during their visit and what they remember after they return home. Understanding your site in this way will supply you with a new collection of features, qualities and experiences to draw on in your work.

While it is possible to map on your own the best results often come when people who are not intimately familiar with a place are invited to explore and discover. Staff and volunteers should always take part – it’s a great way to experience somewhere they think they know so well and at the same time share in other people’s experiences. We have mapped with farmers, adults with learning disabilities, children with sensory impairments, conference delegates, park rangers, as well as staff and volunteers from organisations and sites as diverse as Forestry Commission and the Eden Project. A consistent piece of feedback is how effective sensory mapping is at encouraging people to ‘see’ their site in new ways and from that to identify new opportunities they hadn’t previously considered.

It is worth taking time to get mappers in the mood. Taking people to a location that is particularly sensory-rich, using props or a sensory warm-up exercise can get people to focus on their senses. We sometimes invite people to think about their favourite, sight, sound, taste, texture and smell from nature and, if comfortable, share these memories and associations.

The idea is to avoid trying to map too large an area at any one time – it is important for people to take their time and not rush. Mapping can be focussed, on textures or sounds for example, or concentrated on certain areas or specific environments. Focus groups can explore the experiences of different user groups, such as people with people with sensory impairments or families with children with complex needs.

Recording the results can be done in any number of ways - on individual or group maps, with sticky dots and stars or by planting flags on site. As the sensory highlights will change with the seasons and the weather, it is useful if time permits to repeat the mapping at different times of the year.

So now you have a map of all of the smells that attracted or repulsed people, the sounds that intrigued or distracted, the sights that demanded a closer look, the textures they wanted to take home in their pockets and if they were brave enough the tastes they savoured or suffered. You might also have found out where brought back memories of hiding in trees or discovered where they felt calm and relaxed or uncomfortable and unnerved. What can you do with all that?

A traditional response would be to develop a sensory trail, however we have used sensory mapping to plan routes and trails, to prioritise access improvements, to develop content for promotional material, to plan seating, shelter and information provision. If a particular area is shown to be a hive of sensory activity it is obviously somewhere to encourage people to spend time and an opportunity exists to connect them and their sensory experiences in that spot to the heritage that surrounds them. How much - or more likely how little - do their sensory experiences differ from those of the generations that lived, worked and played in that place? What stories can be told that make use of the smell of rotting leaves, the creak of a floorboard or the gloom of the half light? As well as hotspots you may also discover areas where there was nothing to grab their interest. They might even be areas with significant heritage interest. Here the objective is to explore ways to add sensory interest. What could you do to hold their interest and stir their imagination?

Sensory mapping is a proven technique we continue to develop and evolve with professionals, staff and volunteers in a range of environments and settings. It has been shown to reawaken a sense of wonder in people so used to a place they had forgotten what makes it so special. At the same time it consistently offers visitors of all abilities the opportunity to discover new things. Ultimately, engaging the senses can change the way people explore and connect with their surroundings and its stories.

This article was published in Interpretation Journal, the jounal of the Association for Heritage Interpretation.

See also

let nature feed your senses - our project with LEAF running sensory rich visits to farms and environmental sites across the country

5, 9, 21, 53... how many senses? - taking a journey through the senses

visitor experience review - our consultancy services include sensory reviews and enhanced sensory enagement