The Sensory Odyssey, a multi-sense exhibition at the National Museum of Natural History

“‘The sensory odyssey ‘is a bit like Alice in Darwin’s country“explained Gwenaël Allan, president of the company Editions Spectacles at the origin of this exhibition (1), during a presentation last spring. stroll around the world, from the heights of the Amazonian canopy to the arctic waters, to meet whales.

9 rooms 9 atmospheres

In 2020 and 2021, the Éditions Spectacles teams, sometimes accompanied by scientists from the National Museum of Natural History (MNHN), traveled the planet to film in high resolution scenes representative of the different ecosystems presented during the course. Pandemic obliges, the shootings were sometimes delayed or modified as confirmed by Aude Lalis, Associate Professor at the MNHN and geneticist who returned from the last expedition: “initially we wanted to go to the archipelago of Spitsbergen, in Norway, but the sanitary constraints diverted us towards the bay of Disko, in Greenland. It is a very active glacier that produces a lot of icebergs, it is even nicknamed the iceberg factory.”. During this expedition, the team was able to film “ice and tundra, dozens of birds, an arctic fox and, at sea with drones and divers, humpback whales”. So many images that will be projected in the last room on huge screens that immerse the viewer in the heart of this frozen world which is also suffering the effects of global warming. Illustration of a world as beautiful as it is fragile, it is this same message that will emerge from the other eight rooms. All reinforce the immersive effect with a sound device that forms a real spatialized auditory mantle designed to envelop the visitor, alternately dispatched, at night, in the heart of the savannah near a pond, under the storm or the crackling of the sea. bat sonar.

Few explanations are provided throughout the stroll: they are gathered in the last room, that of the “return of exploration”. Here is provided the scientific light needed to better unlock the secrets of the natural environments crossed and the interactions between plants, fungi, insects and animals. Frescoes and interactive devices illustrate the challenges of biodiversity, an infinite source of innovations, some of which are imagined in a projection towards a “desirable future”.

Odor cannons

But all the originality of “The sensory odyssey” is due to the work carried out on the restitution of smells “which allows to mobilize an additional sense and which speaks directly to the limbic system without going through consciousness”Explains Gwenaël Allan. In each room, olfactory canons project sometimes confusing scents. From the musky ones of wild animals to the pestilential ones of certain plants which use them to protect themselves from predators. Soothing scents of orchids to those of the sperm whale’s amber. Several techniques have made it possible to make them as close as possible to reality. To capture the whole of an olfactory landscape, it is a kind of globe which traps the odorous molecules which is used and which makes it possible to reconstitute a molecular identity card of the environment. For the sperm whale, the process was different: the teams recovered ambergris, a kind of intestinal mass that it regurgitates, to extract the smell. The “noses” then worked on the composition of the scents in order to select the right molecules and reveal the appropriate scents.

These are then projected by cannons which emit very targeted beams of pure scents and allow the construction of a real olfactory scenario. There is no risk of being impregnated with various fragrances, the mixture of which could be unpleasant: the dry diffusion technique used avoids any persistence. At the end of the exhibition, we will therefore keep only a memory, imperceptible but lasting …

(1) The sensory odyssey at the Grande Galerie de l’Evolution at the National Museum of Natural History. From 23.10.2021 to 04.07.2022. Ticket office info (open since June 30).

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