Our 5 Senses


of an Exhibition

by Jamie Bowers

Published on June 03, 2019, Modified on June 04, 2019

  • Description:

    Since its grand opening in 2014, the William B. Dietrich Gallery in the Rare Book Department at the Free Library of Philadelphia has elevated the exhibition space at the flagship Parkway Central Library to museum-quality levels. Previously relegated to small displays in tabletop and wall mounted glass cases or minor exhibitions in the Library’s West Gallery, librarians and curators now have much more room to experiment in a 1,000-square-foot gallery space that is secure and temperature controlled enough to display rare and delicate items.

    Our 5 Senses marks the first time that the Free Library has offered an exhibit that considers young children as an important part of the audience. Billed as “an interactive exhibition for all ages,” Our 5 Senses “connects the senses, the brain, and the literary experience across three centuries of unique materials.” Inspired by the classic 1962 picture book, My Five Senses, by children’s book author, Aliki, Our 5 Senses is organized around the themes of sight, hearing, taste, smell, and touch. Cast in a bright blue backdrop, a variety of objects are on display including original children’s picture book illustrations, prints, stereoscopes, paintings, a hand lamp, and a variety of books including an 1839 “hieroglyphical” bible, an 1960 Ethiopian cookbook, and a 2016 combination book of braille entitled Six Dots. Most objects are mounted on walls or displayed in high glass tabletop cases. I noticed at least two small yellow step stools to boost young visitors up to view the items, which were hung at an average adult’s eye level.

    Welcoming visitors to each of the five sections are original characters created by Philadelphia children’s book author, Greg Pizzoli. The giant, playful anthropomorphic bright orange ear, yellow “running” nose, purple hand, teal eyeball, and somewhat racy tongue, are cute and campy. Each clad in little white gloves with tiny black feet, they recall classic Disney characters, but with an impish rainbow streak. The Pizzoli characters introduce each section with bold prompts like “Look around!,” “Touch your arm. What did you feel?” and “We all love to Eat. But Why?” The color-coded sections describe how specific body parts help us experience senses, why each sense is important, and include a text-heavy portion explaining the science behind the sense. For example, I learned that hearing loss, in part, is due to the wearing down of our stereocilia, tiny hairs in our cochlea. (Oh dear.)

    Each section contains a variety of interactive elements, from mailing a letter to Aliki and a “guess the sound” listening game, to a drawing prompt and a touch and feel quiz. The wall text includes questions that encourage children and adults to think together about to or ponder on their own. Part of the introductory text gently encourages this kind of dialog, reminding visitors that “conversation promotes literacy and is an important step in growing young minds.” For the shorter attention-spanned or weary young visitor, a small nook is set up in the rear of the exhibition that includes picture books, View-Masters, and special interactive books like Magic Eye, optical illusions, and pop-up books.

    Supplemental materials, geared toward pre-k and school-aged children encourage learning within the exhibition, throughout the Parkway Central Library, and even at home. A jumbo, double-sided bookmark includes a Seek & Find of close up objects in the exhibit as well as objects that can be found around the Library, encouraging exploration of the Children’s, Art, Music, and Maps Departments. A free, seven-page activity booklet contains puzzles, games, and drawing prompts.

    For the first large-scale exhibition at the Free Library geared towards children, I feel like this is a tremendous success. It was fun, playful, and interactive, using broad themes that almost everyone can relate to. The interactive elements and suggested activities are the strength of this activity. You could tell that the curators understood that young visitors would need things to touch and play with and they really provided a variety of entry points for the littlest visitors. But the task of making an exhibition for all ages is a challenge. I feel that the look of the exhibition shouts “come in kids!,” but once inside, the tiny space, tall glass tables, and objects mounted on the walls above eyesight sends a different message: one of “be careful and don’t touch.” I would love to see the interactive book nook/rest area front and center as a sitting playing, drawing, and reading area with comfy seating. If the glass cases could be limited (or removed) and some of the objects mounted to the walls, there would have been more room for this central nook, which would make an inviting area from which to look around and take in the view. Instead of attempting to make an exhibition for everyone, I wish the curators would have been able to truly make an exhibition for kids, as I get the feeling their hearts were hoping to do. The Free Library is truly ready for more kid’s exhibitions, and Our 5 Senses is a fabulous and fun step in that direction. More please!

Latest Comments (1)

Good review Jamie

by Kathleen Mclean - June 04, 2019

It provides some good background information, and description of your experience, and some recommendations for improvement. Anyone reading this might want to actually experience the exhibition!

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