Smell Heritage – Sensory Mining

What role do smells play in European culture? How can museums and archives enhance their impact through olfactory storytelling? How can we find, document and represent smells from the past? The Odeuropa project develops novel methods to collect information about smell from digital cultural heritage collections, and represent these to museum visitors.

Our senses are our gateways to the past. While museums and archives are discovering the power of multi-sensory presentations, we lack the scientific standards, tools, and data to effectively identify, consolidate, and promote the wide-ranging role scents and smelling have in our cultural heritage. The EU-funded Odeuropa project applies state-of-the-art AI techniques to cultural heritage text and image datasets spanning centuries of European history (1600-1920), to identify and trace how ‘smell’ was expressed in different languages, what kinds of practices it characterised, and to what emotions it was linked.

During the course of the project (2021-2023) the Odeuropa team organised various olfactory events to test its methodologies, such as guided smell tours in the Museum Ulm, a Malodour workshop in Berlin, and the Amsterdam City Sniffers urban tour.

By the end of the project in December, 2023, Odeuropa will deliver the following products:

Odeuropa Smell Explorer

The Odeuropa Smell Explorer is a unique search engine for everyone interested in the history and heritage of smell. It is a searchable website that enables visitors to navigate over 300 years of European smell history, to discover the smells of the past, and understand how they shaped European history. The data in the explorer was extracted from over 30,000 images and 40,000 historical texts in six languages (English, Italian, French, Dutch, German and Slovene) from a large variety of European public domain sources. Thanks to the unique technologies used to design the tool, the Explorer is the first cultural heritage database that can be queried ‘nose-first’ (using the sense of smell as an entry point). This makes it a valuable resource for anyone interested in understanding what role smells play in European culture, and how smell experiences have been described and depicted in the past. Although the Explorer will officially be launched in late November 2023, a beta version can already be tested at .

For further details, please see this page.

Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage

The Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage is an online reference tool that brings together academic and creative expertise on smell as a cultural phenomenon. The Encyclopedia seeks to identify, consolidate, and promote knowledge of the wide-ranging role scents and smelling have in our cultural heritage and history. It is composed of Entries (Wikipedia-like curated stories, written by experts, with descriptions of particular scents, smellscapes, noses, and feelings related to smells. The entries include quotes, images, and connected data) and Storylines (‘follow-your-nose’ stories that allow you to explore smell history through a series of interlocking themes). As you click your way through the stories you can cross into new themes and use the overview map to locate yourself within the smellscapes of the past.

For further details, please see this page.

Olfactory Storytelling Toolkit

The Olfactory Storytelling Toolkit is a “how-to” guide for working with smells in museums and other heritage institutions. The toolkit provides a starting point for cultural heritage professionals for using smell as a storytelling technique. It starts out by describing the value of working with smells in GLAMs (galleries, libraries, archives, and museums) and offers tangible examples of previous olfactory events. In addition, this hands-on guide provides tips for how to build a strong olfactory narrative, how to create heritage scents with a perfumer how to choose between different presentation techniques, and how to carry out risk assessments. The Toolkit comes with a number of practical resources, such as templates and spreadsheets. The downloadable Toolkit provides a powerful tool for curators to enhance the impact of their institutes. The Toolkit will be launched in November 2023.

For further details, please see this page.

Odeuropa Heritage Smell Library

How can we reengage with the smells of the past? One of the outputs of the Odeuropa project are the olfactory representations of heritage scents: scent compositions, informed by (historical) research, of smells that are or have been significant for specific (European) cultures. To address this goal the Odeuropa project is working with perfumers, olfactory artists and other scent designers. The olfactory reconstructions and recreations are collected, described and safeguarded in the Heritage Smell Library. Samples of the Heritage Smell Library are entrusted to the Osmothèque, Conservatoire International des parfums. Thus, visitors can reengage with these culturally significant scents and heritage institutes can make use of the reconstructions in their exhibitions. A selection of the scents will be collected in the (limited edition) Historical Scent Collection. The Heritage Smell Library will be launched in November 2023.

Other Project Results

Apart from these four products, the Odeuropa project is also delivering several other tangible results:

  • We design various open-source tools and demonstrators which can help navigate the wealth of smell-related data the project has captured from digital heritage collections. These resources are all free to use and can be found on our Github space along with our open-access  corpora, vocabularies and benchmarks.
  • The open-access Odeuropa data model for olfactory heritage information provides a semantic model for describing smells and their associated experiences. The model is described in our award-winning 2022 paper, Capturing the Semantics of Smell.
  • In collaboration with the Amsterdam Historical Review the Odeuropa team designed an online, open-access teaching module: Knowing by Sensing. How to Teach the History of Smell. Using videos and assignments, we introduce best practice techniques for teaching sensory history in the classroom. The module will be made available in October 2023 via the website of the American Historical Association.
  • The online Smell Tracker (still in development) helps to identify historical and contemporary information on different aspects of smell studies.

Join us on 28 November, 2023 when we will share the main outcomes of the project at the Odeuropa Smell Culture Fair in Amsterdam.