When storytelling becomes multi-sensory

9 min readJun 21, 2021

Storytelling guides visitors discover the Grottesche (Grotesques) and the Domus Aurea using six digital installations and a visual sound and light performance. The “Raffaello e la Domus Aurea” (Raphael and the Domus Aurea) multi-sensory experience case study.

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Exhibition and Interaction Design by Dotdotdot — Photo by Andrea Martiradonna — ©Dotdotdot

The importance of storytelling in the visiting experience

We organise our experience and memory of human events mainly by narration (J. Bruner 1991). Stories tell and interpret reality, communicate relationships, exemplify ideas, facilitate reasoning and train people. They have paradigmatic value and provide a thought structure, and knowledge by opening to interpretations and meanings that are always new according to those who listen to them. In his essay “The narrative construction of reality,” Bruner states that narrative is a conventional form that is culturally transmitted and limited by the individual’s mastery.

Adapting to the contemporaneity of language today means suggesting content and strategies to provide and enjoy updated stories and new forms of narration, made possible by digital technology and technological innovation.

Digital storytelling occupies a promising position in the innovative delivery of content in museums and cultural institutions by providing engaging experiences that reveal stories in novel ways. Multimedia and transmedia contents allow us to provide modular visitor experiences, including emotional, didactic, in-depth or immediate content, allowing for unprecedented temporal and content connections which meet the needs of an increasingly demanding and diversified public.

Between the digital technology pervasiveness and the pandemic crisis, we have been forced to speed up the process of redefining the formats for the enjoyment of culture. There has been extensive use of virtual tours to metaphorically open museums, theatres, archaeological parks and historic buildings to the public, despite the closures dictated by the health crisis. Some are experimenting with new ways of providing an attractive visiting experience to a younger public accustomed to digital media.

In a landscape where experimentation becomes the necessary approach, the most compelling experiences are more daring and hybridise physical and digital experiences, which provide new forms of educational entertainment.

Read also “Digital strategy and a beautiful platform to actively involve the public during an online event with thousands people

But what is the key to success? According to a global community of exhibition and culture enthusiasts that organises regular conferences and an annual summit on the future of museums, Museumnext, the key is a clear strategy. This strategy must have a clearly defined audience and meet the challenges of display and content delivery with the correct use of digital technologies and careful design.

Storytelling must be the main focus — technology is only a supporting medium.

Museum Next’s Rebecca Carlsson said that success lies in the quality of the final product, creating a “digital renaissance” that captures the visitor’s attention, immerses them in a story and allows them to learn about new things through multiple forms of multi-sensory learning.

Those working in the cultural sector should seize the potential and embrace the new digital language. However digital is not the ultimate goal, but a versatile and multifaceted tool to open innovative narrative engagement scenarios providing meaning and relationship between people and content that were otherwise impossible to convey.

Storytelling is a preparatory tool for designing the visitor experience and interaction between people and content. The digital narrative project requires just as much strategy and in-depth knowledge of the technologies and methods to enjoy the stories on emotional, cognitive, and sensory levels.

Domus Aurea, Grande Criptoportico 92 (detail of the vault) — ©Parco archeologico del Colosseo’s photographic archive

The “Raffaello e la Domus Aurea” case study

Dotdotdot’s latest exhibition project for the Parco Archeologico del Colosseo and Electa Editore is an example of mise-en-scene of stories which interweave art, history and research and that would be inaccessible without digital.

Raffaello nella Domus Aurea. L’invenzione delle Grottesche” (Raphael in the Domus Aurea. The invention of the grotesques) is a multi-sensory experience entirely entrusted to digital, a journey to discover the Grottesche’s symbolic layout, the pinnacle of their interpretation by Raphael and their worldwide dissemination.

The story is set against the backdrop of the extraordinary Domus Aurea, which is the exhibition setting. It is a place that evokes stories intertwined with Raphael and the Grottesche’s discovery, including the discovery of the Laocoon sculpture group and the Nero’s project for the Octagonal Hall.

More than works of art, the exhibition represents the scientific research and curatorial and narrative choices underlying the exhibition.

The skilful use of multimedia makes it possible to create conceptual and content bridges between distant stories that intertwine in space.

Exhibition and Interaction Design by Dotdotdot — Photo by Andrea Martiradonna — ©Dotdotdot

It is not the work itself at the centre of the installation but rather the experience of a story using all senses. Emotion, surprise and the stimulation of curiosity encourage the visitor to innovatively and memorably learn about the diversity of contents hidden in the story of Raphael and the Domus Aurea.

Using digital technology, the narration becomes more accessible, dynamic, flexible and less predictable. It is possible to reconstruct pieces of history, explore stories, transport visitors to other spatial-temporal environments, reconstruct processes, create visual and conceptual connections, provide curatorial view points and reflections that interweave material and immaterial elements, and mix them in a personal way.

Language is never neutral, and the choice of the proper narrative vehicle for telling stories has profound implications when used in cultural, artistic, educational, scientific, social and political frameworks.

The project in question is based on two narration levels: the artistic tale of the Grottesche and the opening of the Domus Aurea to the public for the first time.

Through an innovative visual and sound storytelling project, six multimedia installations stage the artistic contents in a web of stories that are revealed through a multi-sensory, poetic and evocative experience.

The installation is designed not to be invasive but to enhance the architecture. It is projected on large curtains and arched elements similar to the Renaissance “sfondati”. Digital projections transverse the height of the ancient walls, searching for a dialogue between the historical’s architecture materiality and the incorporeality of contemporary technology.

Exhibition and Interaction Design by Dotdotdot — Photo by Andrea Martiradonna — ©Dotdotdot

Multimedia language was a particular focus and its value enriched by the ad hoc Sound Design project. This real sound storytelling project worked in synchrony with the visual and interactive project.

“In addition to in-depth historical research into Ancient Rome’s music, we have explored Renaissance melodies and musical instruments. The Renaissance was when the Domus Aurea was rediscovered. The visit soundtrack is composed and performed in real time with digital generative music tools that evoke the sounds of instruments from the past — such as oboes, flutes, trumpets and organs, and musical scales typical of the ancient era.”

Dotdotdot Sound Designer and Developer Nicola Ariutti

The result is a harmonious soundscape with classical melodies where silence becomes a narrative element. The background music is enriched with sounds and noises that emphasise each room’s contents and architectural features. The sound accompanies the visitors’ interactions.

Exhibition and Interaction Design by Dotdotdot — Photo by Andrea Martiradonna — ©Dotdotdot

The multi-sensory narrative journey through visuals, sounds and lights

In the first and spectacular Sala Ottagona (Octagonal Hall), the visitor is welcomed by an emotional video mapping on the central vault. Nero imagined a rotating mechanism to evoke the planetarium, so the video projections rotate on the dome representing the starry sky, constellations and shooting stars. The Emperor dropped rose petals from the ceiling to welcome guests to the grandeur of his villa.

On the vault are evocative illustrations of the globe from the Atlante Farnese (Farnese Atlas) statue, the oldest and one of the most complete depictions of the constellations, found in the nearby Baths of Caracalla in Rome around 1546. The visitor can lie down to contemplate the magnificent scenery using a circular seat at the centre of which is the magnificent sculpture of the Atlante Farnese, enjoying the musical background of sidereal sounds, magical voices, songs of muses and spirits.

At set times, the video mapping fades and the light from the skylight increases, creating a dynamic light design to simulate the transition from night to day, underlining the relationship of the Domus Aurea with natural light, which was not originally conceived as an underground architecture. The lights are switched on and off at different times and in various gradations, carefully controlled by all 120 lighting fixtures. This is synchronised with the music, emphasising the performance’s topical moments, dematerialising the setting and revealing the architecture’s scenographic beauty.

Exhibition and Interaction Design by Dotdotdot — Photo by Andrea Martiradonna — ©Dotdotdot

Thanks to Vasari and by comparing the Grottesche of the Domus Aurea and the decorative interpretations of the artists, it is believed that Raphael, Pintoricchio and other painters went into the “grottoes” and discovered the frescoed rooms — hence the name. Inside the first room, the visitor relives the discovery by illuminating part of the projection with their body and discovering the artists’ profiles and the grottesche produced inside their works. The sound design underlines the architectures’ theatrics with cavernous noises, reverberations, whispers, drops of water and rolling stones, increasing Nero’s villa’s evocative potential. The sound accompanies visitors’ interactions. As the number of people in the Hall increases, whisperings increase. The wind’s howling is reduced as visitors approach the wall, where motion sensors trigger video projections.

The Grottesche decorations are called “Raphaelesque” because of Raphael’s masterful reinterpretation. An animated, dynamic and immersive triptych reconstructs Raphael’s masterpiece of the Stufetta del Cardinal Bibbiena in the natural niches of the Domus Aurea. This work is located in the Vatican Apartments, where the public cannot see them. The decorations of small portions are magnified using digital technology to enjoy details that otherwise would not be perceivable.

Exhibition and Interaction Design by Dotdotdot — Photo by Andrea Martiradonna — ©Dotdotdot

The Laocoon statue is a mid-second century BC to mid-first century BC work assumed to have been found in the Domus Aurea. The story of its discovery is told by morphing countless Laocoon interpretations that have followed one another from the 16th century to the present day in a theatrical play of light, shadows and music.

A plaster copy of the Sculptural Group is positioned inside a display case in the centre of the room in a continuous, direct dialogue with the digital narrative. This installation, not directly related to Raphael, emphasises Domus Aurea’s cultural framework as a place of art collecting and the fulcrum of important events in art history.

When the projections are turned off during the light performance, the Domus Aurea is seen in its majesty, and the nymphaeum is evoked in this room. Increasingly frequent drops of water become a cascading waterfall that enriches the projection to evoke the scenographic design and the importance of water in the rooms of Nero’s villa.

After their discovery in the 16th century, the Grottesche spread to various noble palaces around the world. It was a decorative system that lasted until the end of the 17th century before it was rediscovered in the 19th century. Through an interactive console, visitors can navigate a timeline projected onto the velarium and select some in-depth content showing the Grottesche inside the most paradigmatic buildings in the world.

Exhibition and Interaction Design by Dotdotdot — Photo by Andrea Martiradonna — ©Dotdotdot

During the 20th century, however, there is an artistic assonance between the grottesche and monstrous creatures of surrealist artists, including Klee and Breton. Four rings are video-projected on a sizeable out-of-scale sphere, which is a deliberately surreal physical element of the installation. The rings can be rotated by the visitor to compose a grottesca using a game of “Cadavere Squisito”. With a formal association operated by software, the grottesca created by the visitor dissolves into the work of a twentieth-century artist. This is not didactic but entertainingly and interactively reveal the grottesca’s intrinsic soul. It is a free composition of suggestive, dreamlike images rich in detail.

Interaction Design, storytelling and digital technology make it possible to stage stories with innovative and original languages. This creates empathy and establishes a direct and customised relationship between object and meaning, visitor and space, which enables a journey through historical and artistic eras that make the visit experience unique, memorable and shareable.

Laura Dellamotta —Co-founder and General Manager Dotdotdot

Federica Mandelli — Storytelling and Communication Manager Dotdotdot




We are a multidisciplinary interaction design studio founded in Milan in 2004, in which experimentation is at the core of innovation.