Knowing by Sensing

Knowing by Sensing


Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam

Master History, Track Medical and Health Humanities

Coordinator & main teacher

  • Caro Verbeek – an art and sense historian and a curator with a focus on the lower senses. She teaches the preliminary course ‘The Other Senses’ at the Royal Academy of Arts (The Hague) and is specialised in olfactory tours and interventions for museums. Furthermore Verbeek is head curator of ‘odorama’ at Mediamatic. She is currently working on her PhD on art historical smells at VU University, with IFF (International Flavours & Fragrances) and the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam.

Guest teachers

  • Sandra Schouten – the artist behind Het Huis van Proeven. Her work moves between Social Design, Community Art and Food Art. The food and smell is no end in itself, but a means of interaction. The theatrical setting leads towards an intense experience, new conversations and discoveries.
  • Hans Fidom – Professor of Organ Studies at VU University Amsterdam, Leader of the Orgelpark Research Program, and an internationally active Organ Expert/Organist. … He was chief editor of the magazine Het Orgel from 1996 until 2006. In 1997 he initiated the National Improvisation Competition for Organist in Zwolle.
  • Michiel Huijsman – an artist and independent curator. He is the founder of Sountrackcity.
  • Ilja Croijmans – lja currently works as a post-doctoral researcher at Utrecht University in Monique Smeets lab. He focuses on how people can communicate emotions using chemosignals, using psychological methods. Before this, Ilja studied how experience can shape how people talk and think about smells and flavors. Together with his promotor Asifa Majid and co-supervisors Artin Arshamian and Laura Speed, he investigated whether wine experts, having years of practice with perceiving and describing their olfactory experiences, can consistently describe wines. This contrasts the struggle novices often display when trying to name smells and tastes. In addition, memory and imagery for smells were studied, revealing wine experts are better at remembering smells of wine, and have more vivid imagery for wine, than novices. In February 2018, he obtained his Ph.D. at Radboud University.
  • Frank Bloem – an autonomous artist, graduated from the Rietveld Academy. He is a self-trained perfumer and olfactory artist, leading his own company The Snifferoo and the AromaLab at Mediamatic. Since 2018 he is co-curator of the scent culture program ‘odorama’ at Mediamatic.
  • Cathelijne van de Berg –
  • Cathelijne Denekamp – manager accessibility and inclusion at the Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam. Before she worked as a communication advisor at the Van Goghmuseum.
  • Piet Devos (Kortrijk, 1983) – a Belgian writer and literary theorist. He himself went blind at the age of five, an experience which triggered his interest in sensory perception. He has a PhD in Modern Romance Literature from the University of Groningen. He was also a postdoctoral fellow at the Centre for Sensory Studies of Concordia University in Montreal (Canada). Home page:
Intended learning outcomes (more on programme level)

See in objective statement

Learning objectives (course specific)

  • Students are familiar with the most important concepts and elements in the history of the senses in modern and early modern Europe (1500-now).
  • Students will learn to enlarge their sensory vocabulary and reflect on the sensory perception by means of a sense-log.
  • Students will learn to use their senses as analytical tools in academic study by learning to use different kinds of knowing through sensing and enhance sensory skills.
Objective statement (course description)

The senses offer scholars intriguing topics that transcend disciplinary, chronologic and geographic boundaries. But beyond this the senses are valuable methodological tools, that provide us with different types of knowledge than text and image alone can provide. In our digital and visually oriented age of social media and the internet, the senses and the body are undervalued and underestimated – especially in academia. Even when scholars study the senses, they are hesitant to engage with them: they remain the object of study, but aren’t considered informative in themselves.

This course teaches students to include the different senses in the production of knowledge, to train their sensory gaze, and to be able to describe sensory phenomena. The course addresses disciplines such as medicine, medical history, archaeology, (art-)history and non- academic topics such as gastronomy, art and dance. An inter-disciplinary team of experts will address the sense of touch, smell, sight, taste, hearing, synesthesia and even our interoceptive senses (balance, weight, etc.). It challenges the classical hierarchy of the senses in which only sight and hearing are considered aesthetic and informative tools. Senses, body and mind will work together to fundamentally transform the way in which we know, study and understand.

Students will participate in a wide variety of lectures, workshops and experiments offered by specialists, including visits to the Rijksmuseum and Mediamatic, and a wine tasting at VU. They will keep track of their experiences and progress in a multi-sensory ‘sense-log’, and learn to present their research in a multi-sensory presentation. This course is part of the specialist Master Track in Medical and Health Humanities. Students who wish to complete the full track are also required to take the course Introduction to Medical and Health Humanities (Block 4), Objects of Knowledge (Block 5) and Research Seminar: Medicine in Society (Block 5). It is also possible to take just one, two, or three courses. This course is open to all interested MA or MSc students. This includes, but is certainly not limited to, students of history, art-history, medical history, literature, anthropology or psychology.

Type of course:

Skills and content course

Target group :

Graduate students

Pedagogical approach:

Experience-based learning; students are made to use their senses actively in the class


Week 1 – Introduction:

Small assignment 1: The students will already start using their sense of smell and take a sample of historical perfume and investigate what it might be by simply smelling it, asking other people to smell it, and write down their own and other people’s associations. Try to describe the smell with as many words as possible in the sense-log, based on these experiences. During class we will also learn to discern between the three chemical senses: trigeminal perception, taste and smell in order to prepare for week 2.

Week 2 – Smell: Mediamatic Amsterdam:

In the second part of this class we will handle some olfactory artefacts such as censors and pomanders and try to find out how they were used.

In the AromaLab of Mediamatic Frank Bloem will demonstrate how to reconstruct a couple of historical perfumes mentioned in Piesse (1857).

Small assignment 2: Describe the reconstructed smells as elaborately as possible by answering the questions on synaesthetic descriptions in the sense-log.

Week 3 – Hearing:

The class will partly take place on the streets, where Michiel Huijsman from SoundTrackCity will make us listen to the city, and partly in the Orgelpark (a concert venue next to the Vondelpark), where VU-professor Hans Fidom will make us listen to specific sounds, introduce the concept of sound heritage, and discuss some relevant thinkers and sources.

Small assignment 3 during class: Make a soundtrack of the part of the city.

Week 4 – Synaesthesia/Senses, memories and dementia:

In the first part of this session we will learn more about the extraordinary condition called synaesthesia and about cross-modality by doing small experiments and looking at synaesthetic works of art.

In the second part we will learn about senses, memories and dementia by guest speaker Sandra Schouten who runs ‘Huisvanproeven’. The senses are excellent keys to open doors and hatches in our memory. Even for people with dementia, scents can trigger youth memories.

Week 5 – Multisensory Tour Rijksmuseum/Blindness or the complex layers of touch

In the first part of this session we will be taken on a tour that is originally designed for people of different abilities. We will touch an artefact under the guidance of Cathelijne Denekamp, and smell the scents created especially for the Rijksmuseum as translations of the collection. In the second part of the session we will stay near the Rijksmuseum (de Ateliergebouw), and learn more about blindness and the complex layers of touch by Piet Devos.

Week 6 – Kinaesthesia/Taste

Proprioception & kinaesthesia; In this lecture, I will first introduce some of the findings on cross-cultural differences in odor language, and next discuss findings on wine language. Finally, the relationship between expertise, language and thought will be explored briefly, before experiencing first-hand what might be said about wine in a practical tasting session.

Small assignment 4 during class: Bring a (small) mirror for a proprioceptic experiment.

Small assignment 5 during class: Describe the wines as elaborately as possible at the beginning of class, and again at the end of the class making use of the synaesthetic vocabulary you learned in week 2 and the vocabulary taught by Croijmans. Compare the difference and write down how you reflect on your new vocabulary.

Assessment of learning:

The final grade will be determined on the basis of active participation (tracked in the sense- log and monitored by observation of weekly assignments; 20%), presentation (40%) and final assignment (40%).

While grading, teachers will pay particular attention to the integration of sensory illustrations (soundtrack, scent, etc.) in the presentation and in the final assignment, as well as the historical component of the course – requiring students to use concepts from the literature and the lectures. Students are required to pass the final assignment in order to pass the course. Insufficient marks on the presentation, however, can be compensated with a higher mark on the final assignment.

Active participation will be measured through the sense-log and weekly assignments. Students are required to formulate two questions about the required reading for that week and hand them on canvas before the lecture. The participation grade will be based on both the questions and filling in the sense-log.

For the final assignment the students have two options: to write a paper or to design a sensory tour. In weeks three and five, students will hand in either a research proposal for their final essay or a proposal for their sensory tour.

Option 1: The student can choose to write a paper (min. 3000 – max 4000) with one (or more) of the senses or synaesthesia as a topic. This could apply to any domain (philosophy, aesthetics, art, art history, music, cuisine, medicine, heritage, dance), time and place. The student will be evaluated on the special attention paid to knowledge production by means of sensory involvement. Did reconstructing a sensory impulse/ object help in better understanding the object of research? An excellent student will be able to make an argument he or she could not have made without sensory involvement. Make sure to include at least one sensory illustration.

Option 2: The student will design a (fictional) sensory tour or exhibition (minimum amount of objects 3, maximum 6). These objects/ phenomena can be chosen from any heritage institution or site (they don’t necessarily have to be in the same place). The aim is to choose one or more senses as an approach to these objects and to create tactile, gustatory, auditory and/ or olfactory illustrations in order to mediate between the object/ phenomena and the ‘viewer’. Document the tour in a sensory catalogue with textual descriptions focusing on the senses, and descriptions of the sensory medium. Indicate who is your target group (other abilities, people suffering from dementia, etc.).

To introduce your exhibition, write a short historiography (1000 – 1500 words) about what has been done in your selected domain and contextualize by referring to existing tours/ exhibitions and/ or papers.

Effect (witness account, evaluation of the course)

This course will be evaluated digitally, through VUnet. Participation is voluntary, but greatly appreciated by the staff as it helps us improve the course where necessary. – We do not have access to the evaluation (could ask Caro while interviewing)

Additional biblio sources

The handbook used for this course is: David Howes, Empire of the Senses (Oxford, 2005).

Required literature:

  • Verbeek, C. (2017), “Presenting volatile heritage: Two case studies on olfactory reconstructions in the museum”, In Future Anterior (13: 2), pp. 33-42.
  • Neill, C. (2019), “Perspectives on Smell in Medical Culture”, in Routledge Handbook of the Medical Humanities.
  • Browse through Piesse, S. (1857), The Art of Perfumery esc=y
  • Ihde, D. (2012), “The Auditory Dimension”, in The Sound Studies Reader.
  • Campen, C. van (2014) “Uplifting musical memories People with depression, dementia, and care for older people”, in The Proust Effect: The Senses as Doorways to Lost Memories. DOI:10.1093/acprof:oso/9780199685875.003.0010 — Republished in: Campen, C. van (2018) The Proust Effect: Uplifting Musical Memories and Sensory Reminiscence in Older People. In: D. Howes (ed.) Senses and Sensation: Critical and Primary Sources. Volume 2: History and Sociology, Part II: Key Domains and Concepts, chapter 10. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
  • ‘Blindness, a new seeing of the world’, an essay by the French blind author Jacques Lusseyran (1924-1971)
  • Piet Devos, ‘Missing child in the mirror’ or the Dutch original ‘Vermist spiegelkind’.
  • To get even closer to the multisensory knowledge of blindness, you might also like to listen to some binaural recordings of Piet Devos’ daily commutes in Montreal. Please visit the following Vimeo page and make sure to listen with headphones:
  • Montero, B. (2006), “Proprioception as an Aesthetic Sense”, in The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism (64:2).
  • Croijmans, I., Majid, A. (2016), “Not All Flavor Expertise Is Equal: The Language of Wine and Coffee Experts”, in PlosOne, available online:
  • Browse the blog futuristscents: “Talking Wine and Making Sense of Scents with Dr. Ilja Croijmans”, online on: croijmans/

Recommended literature:

  • Hammer, G. (2018), “You Can Learn Merely by Listening to the Way a Patient Walks through the Door”: The Transmission of Sensory Medical Knowledge”, in Medical Anthropology Quarterly, (32: 1), pp. 138-154.
  • Ashbrook Harvey, S. (2006), Scenting Salvation – Ancient Christianity and the Olfactory Imagination, University of California Press, Berkeley, Los Angeles, Londen, 2006
  • Bacci, Francesca and David Melcher edss, Art and the Senses (Oxford, 2011).
  • Bello, P. de, Koureas, G. (eds), Art, History and the Senses – 1830 to the Present, Ashgate
  • Classen, C. et al (1994), Aroma: A cultural history of smell, London.
  • Classen, C. (ed). (2012), The Deepest Sense: A Cultural History of Touch, University of Illinois Press.
  • Classen, C. Other Ways to Wisdom: Learning through the Senses across Cultures. In: International Review of Education / Internationale Zeitschrift fürErziehungswissenschaft / Revue Internationale de l’Education, Vol. 45, No. 3/4, Learning, Knowledge and Cultural Context (1999), pp. 269-280. Springer.
  • Corbin, A., The Foul and the Fragrant, Paris, 1986
  • Hunt, John Dixon, David Lomas and Michael Corris eds., Art, Word and image – Two Thousand Years of Visual/Textual Interaction, London, 2010.
  • Levant, N., The Multisensory Museum, Rowman & Littlefield: Plymouth, 2014.
  • Smith, M. (2007), “Producing Sense, Consuming Sense, Making Sense: Perils and Prospects for Sensory History”, in Journal of Social History (40: 4), pp. 841-58.
  • Verbeek, C. (2015), Es liegt was in der Luft – Duft in der Kunst/ Something in the Air – Scent in Art, Dathe.
  • Verbeek, C. Campen, C. van (2013), “Inhaling Memories: Smell and Taste Memories in Art, Science and Practice”, in The Senses & Society (8:2), pp. 133-148.