Haptic and Olfactory Experiences of the Perth Foreshore: Case Studies in Sensory History

Saren Reid

Abstract


The liminal zone where a city meets ‘the water’s edge’ is a place of heightened sensory experiences. In Australia, these settings have been continually reshaped and experienced, individually and collectively, both before and after European settlement, and so they provide a physical domain for reinterpreting Australian history. In Perth, Western Australia, at the turn of the twentieth century, two recreational buildings on the foreshore, the Perth City Baths (1898–1914) and the Water Chute (1905–unknown), promoted new aquatic leisure practices that provided heightened sensory experiences of the Swan River and the city foreshore. These buildings are examined from the perspective of ‘sensory history’, an alternative form of cultural and environmental analysis that has been garnering interest from a range of disciplines over the past several decades (see, for example, the work of Constance Classen, Alain Corbin, David Howes and Mark M Smith). Sensory history seeks to reveal through historical inquiry the informative and exploratory nature of the senses in specific contexts. The potential value of sensory history to studies of built and natural environments lies in drawing attention away from the overweening and frequently generalising dominance of ‘the visual’ as a critical category in humanities research. The case studies explore how evolving swimming practices at the City Baths and ‘shooting the chutes’ at the Water Chute provided novel, exciting and sometimes unpleasant haptic and olfactory experiences and consider how changing forms of recreation allowed for broadly sensuous rather than primarily visual experiences of the foreshore and Swan River. These case studies are part of a larger body of research that seeks to ‘make sense’ of the Perth foreshore and, more broadly, Australian urban waterfronts as sites of varied and evolving sensory experience.

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