Follow Your Nose: A Guided Tour with Smell

Written by: Christina Kotsopoulou

On the 5th of April, 2022, at 19.00, Museum Ulm in Germany launched the olfactory guided tour, Follow Your Nose. A Guided Tour with Smell, which was designed in collaboration with Odeuropa and International Flavours and Fragrances (IFF). The aim of this tour is to pair historically informed scents with eight artworks from the museum’s permanent collection and engage visitors into a multisensory and ‘nose-opening’ experience with art. The launch was a two-hour event that included introductory talks from both Museum Ulm and Odeuropa, enlightening discussions with the perfumers of IFF who were present that evening and engaging short versions of the olfactory guided tour in English and German. 

All the scents of the olfactory tour at the museum office of Dr. Eva Leistenschneider where she welcomed the Odeuropa team before the launch started. Photo taken by Christina Kotsopoulou.
Dr. Eva Leistenschneider prepared Sofia Ehrich and Lizzie Marx with scented blotters and instructions on how the guided tours would be conducted by the three of them that evening. Photo taken by Christina Kotsopoulou.

Once the launch began, deputy director of the museum, Dr. Eva Leistenschneider, the museum’s director, Stefanie Dathe, and the mayor of Ulm gave a word of thanks to everyone involved in this project, explained the challenges of planning this project during the Covid -19 lockdowns in 2021 and emphasized on the importance of introducing smell into museums. On behalf of Odeuropa, Sofia Ehrich and  Lizzie Marx briefly spoke about the nature and goals of the Odeuropa project. Afterwards, the four guided tours that would be given in English and German were introduced as well as the IFF perfumers who were there that evening to answer people’s questions about the making of a scent. 

Stefanie Dathe, the director of Museum Ulm, giving a word of thanks to all the involved members of the project. Photo taken by Christina Kotsopoulou.

My experience of the launch started with an insightful discussion with the IFF perfumers in which I was able to learn their thinking process when creating a scent to pair with a painting. In particular, based on their perspective, it became clear that a perfumer’s approach depends first and foremost on the type of scent. Working with an abstract painting and thus, an abstract scent can be more creative for perfumers who can then use raw materials by colour to achieve the best result. On the contrary, when a scent is historically informed it must be based not only on the art historical background of the painting but also the historical period it was made to determine what kind of materials were available back then. Interestingly, the IFF perfumers worked with at least fifty raw material scents to achieve the final scents for the olfactory tour in the Museum Ulm mainly because of the malodorous aspects of a few paintings, such as the artwork of Dieter Roth, Kleine Landschaft that depicts the natural decay of food materials. However, the biggest challenge during their process of creating a scent for an artwork was meeting the expectations of the perfumer and museum. Therefore, the IFF perfumers emphasized on the importance of a good and constant communication between both sides during the whole creating process as well as on the instrumental role of physically experiencing the artworks that will be translated into scents: an experience that the IFF perfumers unfortunately could not have in the early stage of their thinking process due to the general lockdowns of Covid -19 in Germany.

The IFF perfumers’ table at the Museum hall with scent samples and books about the making of scents for the public. Photo taken by Sofia Ehrich.

The two English olfactory tours which followed the introductory talks of the launch were given by Lizzie Marx and Sofia Ehrich and each one of them included three different paintings. Depending on the artwork and how recognisable the theme was, both Lizzie and Sofia interacted with their small groups by asking them what was depicted every time and what scent could be linked with each artwork before handing participants the scented blotters and informing them about the art historical and olfactory aspects of the painting. It was only in the case of Ellsworth Kelly’s Orange Blue, that the group was asked  to smell the blotters in advance of seeing the artwork so that they could confirm whether or not they smelled any of the colours  after viewing the artwork. The public’s reactions to the question about what they smell each time was very positive and almost every participant tried to guess the ingredients of the scents with great success. The most interesting reaction, though, was when the public’s expectations would be fulfilled or not after seeing and ‘smelling’ a painting, particularly the malodorous choices of the collection. For instance, the scent of hell was expected to be more foul but  instead it was even found pleasant by a few participants. All in all though, the public responded very enthusiastically to the pairing of a painting with scent from the first moment saying that a “scent can convey more messages about an  artwork than the image alone”.

Sofia Ehrich giving an olfactory tour for the scent of hell in front of the painting Christ in Limbo. Photo taken by Christina Kotsopoulou.
Lizzie Marx giving an olfactory tour in English for the scent of tanned leather in front of the Portrait of Helena Schermar. Photo taken by Christina Kotsopoulou.

In sum, the launch of the olfactory guided tour, Follow Your Nose. A Guided Tour with Smell, at the Museum Ulm was a very enlightening experience about the public’s olfactory reactions and the IFF perfumers’ perspectives. Learning about a perfumer’s approaches and challenges when creating a pairing scent for an artwork, was a unique opportunity that the event offered and one that I particularly enjoyed due to my limited knowledge on the subject. Since the official opening of the olfactory guided tours to the public, according to Dr. Eva Leistenschneider, the tours have been very positively received especially by non-regular museum visitors  who found their experience with art more relatable through the scents. Hopefully, these olfactory tours will continue to be well received by the public and attract more curious participants from around the world during the next months that they will be conducted at the Ulm Museum! 

Please find further information about the available dates for the olfactory guided tour, Follow Your Nose. A Guided Tour with Smell, at Museum Ulm here.

Finding references to smell in artworks

Identifying visual references of olfactory phenomena in artworks is an important way to uncover how Europe may have smelled in the past and how smell was represented. The computer-vision team of the Odeuropa project is currently working on methods which would automatically extract these references from various large collections of European artworks by applying, modifying, and extending state-of-the-art object detection methods. In order to collect and extract these olfactory references using computer recognition, it is necessary to first identify how smell is visually represented or depicted in historical artworks.

To provide an example of how this works, we used the print Smell (1581-1656) by Nicolaes de Bruyn, which is currently housed at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam.

Smell (1581-1656) by Nicolaes de Bruyn

In the sixteenth century, the pairing of a woman with a dog was used as a visual depiction or personification of the sense of smell. Since the object detection method was able to identify the dog and the woman, this would seem like an effective system. However, there are certain challenges which come with this detection. Firstly, not all pairings of people or women with dogs are ‘olfactory’, for example in other centuries a dog on the lap or feet of a woman represents fidelity, as seen in Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434).

Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Portrait (1434)
This presents us with the challenge of distinguishing when a dog is or is not ‘olfactory’ in nature. A second challenge is that the olfactory gesture of the woman smelling the flowers was also not detected by computer recognition. This poses further limitations on detecting olfactory elements in paintings.

Many olfactory-related narratives can also be found in the Bible, the Sacrifice of Noah (Genesis 8:20) for example. The print, Sacrifice of Noah after the Flood by Casper Luyken, shows Noah creating a burnt offering of animals, combined with the usual “Covenant of the Rainbow” in the background.

Sacrifice of Noah after the Flood by Casper Luyken

These types of olfactory narratives reveal more limitations of existing object detectors, while the people and animals were easily detected but the rainbow and cloud of smoke were not, hence overlooking the olfactory element of the artwork. This could be because these object detection systems are limited to the data with which they have been trained, leading to two problems. Firstly, since the detectors are trained with photographic data, their effectiveness decreases when applied to images with an artistic style such as historical paintings and prints. Secondly, it could be that certain objects (like smoke and rainbows) were either underrepresented or not at all part of the detector’s training data.

In order to tackle these issues of computer recognition, we will apply and modify domain adaptation techniques in order to improve the detection abilities on artistic image domains. After implementing a working object detection system, we plan to incorporate art historical knowledge which would also enable our system to recognize complex and context-specific olfactory references.

Seeing by Smelling – How to Enhance the Experience for Blind and Low Sighted People in a Museum of ‘Visual’ Art

This post by Caro Verbeek originally appeared on Futurist Scents

In 2015 I embarked on one of the greatest adventures of my life. IFF (Hilversum), the Rijksmuseum (Amsterdam) and I (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) reconstructed a dozen historical and other scents for our joint project ‘In Search of Lost Scents’. All scents were related to art works from the so called ‘Highlight tour’: a unique project combining the best of (very different) worlds.

Right before the lockdown (due to corona) I was able to introduce some of these scents to a group of blind and near sighted people during a tour at the Rijksmuseum, organized by Hannes Wallrafen of Stichting Geluid in Zicht and Cathelijne Denekamp. Denekamp is manager of accessibility in the museum and is convinced the senses can play an important role in inclusivity:

“In order to make objects come to life, touch and smell are essential tools for blind people or people with low vision. The Rijksmuseum is considered a very visual museum. As a museum we acknowledge our responsibility of giving blind people or people with low vision access to art and history without using their eyes. Scent and story-telling enable us to do that.”

Olfactory tour for blind and near-sighted people at the Rijksmuseum.
Olfactory tour for blind and near-sighted people at the Rijksmuseum. Some (including me) are wearing especially designed scent necklaces which are a co-creation and -design by Caro Verbeek, Justus Tomlow and Bernardo Fleming (IFF).

Understanding rituals by the sense of smell – The Adoration of the Magi

We started our multi-sensory tour in the dimly lit vaulted rooms that store medieval and renaissance art works. We halted at the painting ‘Adoration of the Magi’ by Geertgen tot Sint Jans. The artist confronts us with lavishly dressed men holding precious gifts in front of a new-born child sitting on the lap of his mother. After this description the participants recognized the biblical story of the three kings offering frankincense, myrrh and gold to Jesus without even hearing the title of the painting. Not mentioning such details leaves more room for the mind to explore and imagine.

Frankincense and myrrh were meant as burnt offerings to pay honour to kings and gods. In antiquity  resins were burnt ‘per fumum’ (through smoke) to make its fragrant emanations reach the nostrils of divine beings. Every contemporary viewer of this painting would have understood that by offering these fragrances these royals symbolically acknowledged the divine and profane superiority of Christ; a meaning that got lost somewhere over the past centuries. And so did the meaning and aromatic quality of one of the scents.

The participants were enabled to actually smell myrrh as part of a story-telling technique. Its aromatic quality (bitter) is connected to its historical meaning: besides being an offering to a god, the bitterness of this resin was considered prophetic and referred to the future suffering of Christ. This means that sensory engagement can actually lead to a better understanding of past rituals. Here’s what participant Emilie De Lanoy Meijer recalled months later:

“Because of the scent of myrrh I instantly felt transported to the story and time it took place.”

Scents are in fact known to elicit intense historical sensations, according to neuro-scientist Richard Stevenson; even more so than images or sounds.

Geertgen tot Sint Jans, Adoration of the Magi, 1480 – 1485.
Geertgen tot Sint Jans, Adoration of the Magi, 1480 – 1485. Two of the gifts offered to Jesus were scents. Myrrh literally translates as bitter and smells accordingly.

“As a fully blind individual I do not feel any connection to paintings, but rather to stories”

We then took a small detour to a so-called ‘pomander’ in the department of the ‘special collections’. Pomanders are metal jewels filled with fragrances, worn by people of high status such as doctors and lawyers. They were hung from a chain or ‘chatelaine’ so the scents could be taken to the nose at will. Fragrances were supposed to help protect people from diseases, which were thought to be caused by bad smells (think of ‘malaria’ which literally means ‘bad air’). Baring in mind the story surrounding the three magi: a pomander could also function as a prayer nut which contents were an offering or wordless prayer in itself.

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