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Making Sensory Tours Safe

A number of years ago, I happened to be on the grounds of Fort Knox, Kentucky, at the Patton Museum of Calvary and Armor, on the Fourth of July. Visitors that day had been promised a “parade” of some of the armored vehicles in the museum’s collection. I wasn’t expecting much. But then, a low, ominous creaking began. As the sound came inexorably nearer, I suddenly experienced an unexplainable fear. This was no sound I’d ever heard, and it filled me with dread. When the tank that was producing the fearful sound came into view, it brought with it an aura of power that the museum’s static displays could only hint at.

The Patton Museum at Ft. Knox still allows summer visitors the sensory experience of one tank in motion on the third Saturday of each month, April through October, and a mass parade of rumbling armored vehicles on the Fourth of July. They are able to do so because they spend many hours in preparation to ensure the safety of their visitors. Impressing on people that tanks are “loud, hot, and dusty,” their large volunteer force also provides the supervision that is one aspect of safely including sensory experiences in museum tours.

Safety guidelines regarding sound are generally vague, although Nancy Nadler, director of the Noise Center for the League of the Hard of Hearing, has been quoted as saying, “If it sounds too loud, it probably is.” Continued exposure to noise above 85 decibels can cause serious hearing damage (ordinary conversation is about 60 decibels.) Museums, historic sites, and other such institutions that include loud sounds as part of their experience must consider both distance from the sound source and the acoustic environment (indoors or outdoors, and with or without ambient noise) when planning for their visitors’ and volunteers’ safety. Ear protection devices such as muffs or disposable plugs should be offered if loud sound is a continuous part of the tour. For those tours where a loud sound, such as a cannon or rifle volley, is (pardon the pun) a “one-shot” occasion, audience members should be warned to cover their ears, and those creating the sounds should wear earplugs.

When incorporating smells as part of a museum experience, common sense and those old rules from the chem lab are applicable. Smells from caustic or overpowering substances should not be used in museum settings, no matter how tempting it is to let visitors to a turn-of-the -century pharmacy get a good whiff of asafetida! Paints and glues with strong odors should always be used in a well-ventilated area. If visitors are asked to smell something, they should be instructed to carefully wave the vapor from the substance toward their nose with their hand, rather than sniffing it directly. Visitors should also be advised when they will enter an area of the museum where the irritants and odors from perfumes and colognes (or incense) or tobacco might cause allergic reactions in some people.

Allergies and sensitivities to certain foods should also be a consideration when museums and other educational facilities plan to introduce taste to their educational programming. A few specific foods seem to cause the majority of food allergies, with 90% of all allergic reactions coming from cow’s milk, eggs, peanuts, wheat, soy products, fish and shellfish, and tree nuts. With up to 2 million children affected, food allergies are not to be taken lightly. In addition to avoiding the use of certain foods, museums should advise parents of children participating in food programs (and the children, themselves) of the types of foods to be used.

Peanuts, in particular, have become the number one food allergy, and the food allergy most likely to be fatal. Reactions to food allergies, in comparison to food sensitivities, are usually immediate and may include itchy mouth, “fullness” in the throat, shortness of breath, difficulty in breathing, vomiting, and/or a red, itchy rash over the entire body. In addition to avoiding the use of such highly allergic foods, docents and education staff should have training in dealing with allergic reactions and access to emergency help should a visitor have a severe reaction.

Food preparation is one area that is carefully regulated by county and state health departments, and personnel at those facilities can be of incredible help in setting up an educational program that includes food. Health department requirements vary depending on whether or not the food in question is being sold or given to the public, and on whether or not the food is a “sampling” vs. a serving size. If food is to be sold, or if it is considered serving size, most health departments require that the food be prepared in an inspected kitchen facility by trained food service personnel and supervised by a certified food protection manager. Rather than use their own facilities and personnel, many museums that serve food on a regular basis use an inspected and approved catering service.

In most cases, however, food offered during tours or demonstrations is a small sample. In these instances, health department guidelines are available to help in developing a protocol to avoid illness and liability issues. While most people take great care with food sanitation and refrigeration, a health department official shared with me that the greatest danger in food contamination actually comes from Hepatitis A, a viral disease transmitted when food service personnel are not scrupulous about hand washing.

Adding sensory experiences to a museum tour or demonstration takes careful planning and consideration of a variety of safety issues. It is never enough to depend on rules and the goodwill of the touring public. When appropriate tastes, smells, and sounds are added to a museum’s programming, however, enhanced visitor enjoyment and education make the extra planning worth the effort.

Jackie Littleton, Associate Editor

Littleton, Jackie. “Making Sensory Tours Safe,” The Docent Educator 11.2 (Winter 2001-02): 18-19.

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