Tate Sensorium: What it feels like to smell, taste and hear a painting


Tate Britain’s new exhibition, Tate Sensorium, gives visitors the chance to smell, taste, touch and hear four of its paintings. What does it actually feel like to experience art like this? In one word: interesting. In four words: you should try it.

The multi-sensory art show has been developed by creative studio Flying Object in collaboration with a perfumer, sound designer, chocolatier, lighting designer and technologist. It’s free to enter, but the intimate set-up – groups of four people, admitted in fifteen-minute slots – means you’ll need to book in advance. Once inside, you’re handed a biometric wristband to wear that will measure your physiological reactions to each piece (this comes into its own at the end of the exhibition).

Then, you enter the first room: a Richard Hamilton painting, Interior II (1964), which is enhanced by a soundscape of activity (people walking around, murmured conversations) that stretches the painting out of its frame a little, bringing it into the space around you. Boxes of scent are fixed on the walls around the painting to seek out and sniff, too – although I found this less powerful than the sound.

Interior II (1964) by Richard Hamilton

Interior II (1964) by Richard Hamilton

Interior II (1964) by Richard Hamilton at Tate Sensorium

The second painting, David Bomber’s jagged In The Hold (c 1913-14) is presented with two layers of audio, which you can step between, and two choices of scent shakers to pick up and sniff. This will really test your perception of smell – none of the fragrances in this exhibition are standard-issue.

In The Hold (c. 1913-14) by David Bomberg

In The Hold (c. 1913-14) by David Bomberg

In The Hold by David Bomberg at Tate Sensorium

For the final two paintings, the other senses are added in: John Latham’s abstract painting Full Stop (1961) comes with an equally abstract soundscape, but also a box that stimulates your sense of touch, blowing compressed air onto your hand to mimic different textures.

Full Stop (1961) by John Latham

Full Stop (1961) by John Latham

Full Stop (1961) by John Latham at Tate Sensorium

The final exhibit, Francis Bacon’s Figure In A Landscape (1945), is the one I found most disturbing. The other experiences had been pleasant – Full Stop the most transportative, probably because it’s my favourite painting of the four (and haptic tech is always fun) – but the Francis Bacon painting is dark and moody, and the sensory elements amplify this.

The soundscape is more jarring, and the chocolate that is provided to eat in front of the painting has a very distinct taste and texture. While some reviewers loved the taste, I found it extremely unpleasant: let’s just say it’s not what you might expect.

Figure In A Landscape (1945) by Francis Bacon

Figure In A Landscape (1945) by Francis Bacon

Figure In A Landscape (1945) by Francis Bacon at Tate Sensorium

At the end of the exhibition, you’re handed a sheet of paper that interprets the data from the wristband. A graph shows where your body peaked in its responses to the experiences, and a customised map points out other paintings in Tate Britain that you might also respond strongly to – a clever way to extend people’s visits to a museum they might not know well.

All in all, Tate Sensorium is a small but curious experience, and I’m already thinking about who I want to take back to experience it with me. Now I know the secrets behind each scent, sound and taste (they reveal all at the end), I might find even more layers to enjoy.

EXPERIENCE DESIGN: Find out how multi-sensory experiences are filtering from the world of theatre into daily life – including food, travel and retail – in new report The Immersive Theatre Effect.

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