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Using the Five Senses to Enliven Tours: Sensing the Desert

Have you ever watched a house cat sitting outdoors? A cat is super-tuned to its environment. Ears, eyes, nose are all alert and taking in information. Its survival may very well depend upon its ability to perceive what is lurking in its environment. A cat will never just exit from the house without first checking past the door to see if it is safe. In contrast, I go in and out, here and there, barely noticing where I step or what is around, as if I were in total control of my environment and nothing would ever surprise me. As civilized adult human beings, a heightened sensory awareness to our local environments is not so critical for our survival.

As babies, however, we begin our learning entirely with sensory input. The unfocused eyes and brain struggle to make sense of our surroundings. Over time they learn to recognize shapes. The cacophony of sounds becomes ordered, we learn to understand words and eventually to talk. The smells of our caretakers, siblings and local foods become familiar, and we remember them. We reach out to touch and grasp everything we see, and each thing must be tasted and evaluated with lips and tongue. As children grow this sense of touching, handling and sensing objects continues. Children are very active sensory learners.

As the environment becomes familiar, our senses go into a kind of automatic mode. We see, but we don’t notice. We hear, but we don’t listen. However, when we enter an unfamiliar environment for the first time, whether it is a new museum, or a foreign country, our senses are heightened. In this “new world” our senses do not know what to focus on, how to prioritize information, and we are in sensory overload. There are so many new and exciting things to see, hear, smell, and sometimes to do.

Docents in a museum can help visitors of all ages learn where and how to focus this heightened sensory awareness onto specific objects or exhibits, and bring fascinating stories to life. We will explore a few ways docents do this at the Desert Botanical Garden, in Phoenix, AZ.


Explaining why there are deserts in the world and where these deserts occur on the earth can be pretty “dry” information, especially when visitors are on sensory overload. However, showing a raised relief map of where the deserts and the mountains are located, and allowing visitors to touch, helps enhance an image. As they hear about how the mountains block the rain, the visitors sense the elevated mountains beneath their fingers. That makes a memorable impression.

Another example of touching helps visitors understand how cacti store water. We explain that a cactus is not a vessel filled with water, and it is not possible to cut one open and get a drink. But, allowing visitors to feel the texture of the tissues of a succulent cactus and to discover how these tissues store water, helps them understand. Do not underestimate the value of physical touching to make your point, reinforce your message, or keep excited little hands busy while they listen to your story.


There are many fascinating stories of how plants in the desert survive. Using the sense of smell is another useful method to bring these stories to life. For example, the creosote bush is a rather unimposing looking desert shrub. The story of this very abundant desert plant is unforgettable when docents have visitors smell the aromatic resins on the plant’s leaves. These resins protect the bush from losing water—conserving water is essential for desert plants to survive. This resin dissolves into the air when it rains creating a very distinctive fresh smell. “Fake” rain, created with a little spray bottle, allows visitors to smell and remember about the creosote bush’s special desert adaptation. Smell is a very powerful sense, and aromas are remembered forever. Make your story memorable with a related smell.


Docents tell the story of the desert “Tree of Life” (the mesquite tree) at a station set up in the shade of a magnificent mesquite tree. At this station docents show examples of all the components of this amazing tree that have been used in the desert for centuries: pitch made into paint for pottery, wood used for making tools and building homes, leaves used as a topical medicine, and bean pods used for food. While tasting tea or flour made from the sweet bean pods, visitors are fascinated to learn how the beans are collected, stored for year round use, and then ground into the flour that can be used to flavor cookies, muffins, pancakes, breads, and many other foods. Visitors can also grind some of the beans themselves — the old fashioned way in a stone mortar with a large wooden pestle. They go away with the taste of mesquite, and a better understanding of the value of this important desert tree. Tasting is almost always a winner, especially with children visitors.


Recorded sounds of local birds are available on a sign in the Garden. The distinctive call and chatter of a desert Gamble’s Quail can be heard while looking at its picture and reading information about this interesting bird. Visitors can write in our log book those birds they have seen or heard on the day of their visit. It is amazing how people begin to identify the local animals by sight and/or sounds, as evidenced by those recorded in the log.

In this instance, it is an exhibit sign that engages the sense of hearing to focus visitor attention. Docents build on the sounds of the sign by encouraging visitors to listen and look for birds and nests, while also showing up close some of the birds nests and the nest materials. The birds and their calls, explained by the hands-on items, help visitors understand that birds and animals depend on local desert plants for survival. Using hearing is an effective “hook” for getting visitors interested in the message.


As primarily sighted beings we look at things all the time. But do we really see things? One of the exercises we share with docents, teachers, and visitors is to ask what colors they think of when they hear the term “desert.” We often have preconceived visions in our minds that we do not “see” beyond. To break free of this we give each person 3-5 assorted color chips cut from a paint sample brochure. They then go out into the Garden and find their colors in the plants, the soil, or wherever, as long as it is in the natural things in the Garden, In direct contrast to their bland “visions” of a desert, people are amazed by how many colors are readily visible in the leaves, branches, and bark when their attention is focused. One of the docents uses this activity regularly with visitors on his tour. When each person finds his color he shares it with the rest of the group, then everyone benefits. It is surprising how easily and eagerly visitors of all ages get involved in this simple technique of discovery.

On the other hand, as attuned as we are to using our sight to gather information, try going for a nighttime tour. You quickly discover that smelling and hearing become more advantageous in the dark. We then learn that night-blooming flowers are usually aromatic to attract the nighttime animals that pollinate them. And nocturnal animals like crickets and frogs make noise at night in order to attract a mate. This perspective can also help us understand how visitors with disabilities might benefit from museums/docents that “engage the senses.” Using a variety of sensory activities to tell the museum’s stories enables visitors to easily and naturally connect using one sense or another.

In the harsh world of spiny, prickly, “don’t touch” plants at the Desert Botanical Garden, we search for ways to connect with our visitors and enhance their understanding. Having hands-on, sensory items on tours and at docent stations along the trail enables docents to make that connection and the desert becomes a more “friendly” place.

Museums are often thought of as sterile places where you look at special things and don’t touch. In reality museums offer special opportunities to use the objects and artifacts to engage the senses in ways that are not available in the formal education world of books and photos.

Stories about the objects — whether it is how a rock was formed and moved to the surface of the earth, or how a plant survives in the desert, or how an artist makes his paints or his paintings—are made real by visitors using their senses to have very personal experiences with the objects. Helping visitors focus their attention by using their senses is an easy and rewarding way to make a visit to your museum memorable.

Nancy Cutler has been interpretive coordinator at the Desert Botanical Garden, in Phoenix, Arizona, training docents and refining interpretive techniques for the past nine years. She is a frequent contributor to The Docent Educator. Her most recent article, “Capitalizing «?w Curiosity,” appeared in the Autumn 2001 issue (Vol. 11, No. 1).

Cutler, Nancy. “Using the Five Senses to Enliven Tours: Sensing the Desert,” The Docent Educator 11.2 (Winter 2001-02): 10-12.

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