Added-on or Built-in? A taxonomy of non-ocularcentric exhibition strategies at institutions of contemporary art in Canada


While the prevalence of ocularcentrism – the prioritization of sight above the other senses – has been addressed by scholars regarding anthropology and history museums, it remains a central issue in many museums of art and similar cultural heritage institutions. Experiencing art with senses other than sight are often discouraged in contemporary exhibition spaces, excluding many different modes of creation and participation for both artists and visitors. In some instances, however, other senses are encouraged or required to engage with the contents of exhibitions. By surveying and interviewing professionals working in contemporary art institutions in Canada using qualitative, grounded theory methods, this research endeavored to parse out the factors that have led to the positive inclusion of multi-sensory works of art and/or multi-sensory ways of experiencing art, and what barriers there are for inclusion where this is not standard. Through exploratory research, three distinct categories of strategies to include or create multi-sensory and non-ocularcentric exhibitions in contemporary art spaces emerged and have been modeled in this paper. These categories also have distinctly different motivations for their use, ranging from artistic and curatorial intent to accessibility and education initiatives. Understanding the different types and motivations of exhibition strategies being implemented to produce non-ocularcentric exhibitions, will provide cultural heritage professionals valuable tools to understand and represent a wider range of demographics in the artists they exhibit and the visitors they attract.

Apr 28, 2022 10:05 AM
ellen belshaw
ellen belshaw
School of Information Studies, McGill

ellen belshaw (they/them) is an independent curator and master’s student at McGill’s School of Information Studies. They have worked as an archival intern at la Centrale galerie Powerhouse and sat on the board of directors at Ada X for six years, both longstanding feminist artist-run centres in Montreal. While their curatorial work often focuses on relationships, both interpersonal and with the world around us, their current academic research interests pertain to the ocularcentric tendencies of cultural heritage institutions. Following their graduation in spring 2022, belshaw will complete a month-long curatorial residency at Laboratorio Arte Alameda in Mexico City.