Odeuropa x Museum Ulm Guided Tour Launch

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.

Odeuropa Team Milestone: Our First In-Person, Hands-On Meeting

 

Parisian street art: “Pendre au nez. Les murs ont des oreilles” or “Hang onto the nose. The walls have ears.” Photo: Inger Leemans.

After more than nine months of remote working due to the pandemic, we finally brought part of the Odeuropa team together. This October, 11 Odeuropa team members, representing all work packages and almost every project partner, met in Paris to smell things, co-create annotated data, bridge gaps between core concepts, and even challenge each other to a game of foosball. This lockdown period has been a burden for all research teams, but for a project researching smells and olfactory heritage, the audiovisual-biased world of online working has been a severe challenge.

Odeuropa team members Lizzie Marx and Victoria-Anne Michel smelling books during the smell walk at the Bibliothèque Nationale de France. Photo: Inger Leemans.

We approached this first in-person gathering ‘nose-first’ with the help of our PhD student, Victoria-Anne Michel who organized an olfactory workshop and smell walk for the team. During the workshop, we were able to smell perfumes and raw materials which we then categorized and made associations with through our sense of touch. During our smell walk through the different spaces within the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (site Richelieu) we stuck our noses into a few books, old and new. While walking around the place, we first inhaled the general atmosphere, which sensory researcher Kate McLean calls “smell catching.” We then went “smell hunting” in specific spots. Through this exercise, we felt the contrasts of olfactory atmospheres, or “smellscapes”; from the sleek and modern Performing Arts reading room, the wax wooden rotunda, the futuristic corridor leading to the old-fashioned Manuscripts reading room, and, finally, the impressive, bright, cathedral-looking Labrouste reading room. The discussions that followed were a mix of poetic impressions, technical considerations like the different types of air control systems, and personal scent memories. With this, olfaction functions as both an emotional and spatial sense! Special thanks to the curators Sylvie Bourel, Hervé Grosdoit-Artur and Mathieu Lescuyer, without whom this smellwalk would not have been possible.

This trip not only allowed us to get to know each other and train our noses, but also to truly invest in interdisciplinary knowledge exchanges within Odeuropa and beyond. Throughout the few days, we were able to  meet with researchers, heritage groups and other parties involved in the perfume and scent culture industry.

Cecilia Bembibre in the flamingo room at the press launch of the Sensory Odyssey experience. Photo: Sofia Ehrich.

Some highlights from our trip:

  • We received a warm welcome at the Osmothèque – the historic perfume conservatory based in Versailles – discussing future collaborations around olfactory heritage with the President, Head of Scientific Committee and Communications director of Osmothèque (and smelling some of the nose-boggling perfumes and odorants safeguarded by the institute);
  • We attended the press launch of Sensory Odyssey, a multisensory immersive event in the Natural History Museum of Paris;
  • We met with the representatives of the Centre des Monuments Nationaux to discuss olfactory approaches to heritage representation;
  • We had drinks with the acclaimed French historian Annick Le Guérer, to discuss her participating in one of our future Smellinars, among other things (more to be announced later);
  • We visited the Voyages Immobiles exhibition to see how smells were presented and communicated in an event for general publics
  • We annotated 371 perfumed gloves in paintings;
  • Lastly, we had four trips together to the supermarket, ate loads of croissants and had some adventures with Vélib bikes.

Alas, three days was surely not enough for all our ambitions – so much is going on in the realm of olfactory heritage in France. So: we’ll be back!

 

Part of the Odeuropa team having lunch together at a Parisian restaurant. Photo: Marieke van Erp.

Smellinar 1 – David Howes

On May 26, the Odeuropa project opened its new “Smellinar” series with a lecture by David Howes. With the Smellinars series, Odeuropa aims to provide a podium for the exciting, innovative, and multi-disciplinary work that is going on in the world of olfactory heritage and sensory mining. Smell historian William Tullett is the host of the Smellinar series.

Anthropologist David Howes is one of the pioneers in the field of sensory studies, and the co-founder of the Centre for Sensory Studies at Concordia University. With this centre, Howes and sensory historian Constance Classen have created an open, yet robust space for exploratory and fundamental research into the cultural history of the senses.

As professor Howes is now working on a Sensory Studies Manifesto (forthcoming from the University of Toronto Press), the Odeuropa project was eager to hear his thoughts about the agenda for the field. In his lecture, Howes expressed his excitement about the turning point he envisions the field is now experiencing. According to Howes, the Odeuropa project is a sign of a “revolutionary new opening” in the field. “This shows we are on the cusp of a new era in smell studies”, Howes stated. He drew a parallel with Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell (1994), the groundbreaking work exploring the history, anthropology and sociology of olfaction. This book, which he co-authored with Classen and the sociologist Anthony Synnott, appeared at a moment in time where the tide was turning for the interest in olfaction. Just as the announcement of the launch of the Odeuropa project has attracted widespread interest across the humanities (including digital humanities) and social sciences, and from the global press, in the 1990’s, Classen and Howes were overwhelmed by the attention and response their work triggered. Their book was awarded, reviewed, discussed, critiqued and translated, while they themselves were welcomed all over the world to research smell cultures, and even became the object of research themselves, for (as Howes narrated) people in Brazil and Papua New Guinea ‘sniffed them out’. Thus, the smell researchers also became subjects of olfactory analysis.

Their first forays in the world of sensory research already convinced Howes and Classen that in order to learn about the senses, one has to embrace embodied learning techniques. “Follow your nose”, was Howes’ advice to the audience. Although this might seem self-evident, in academic research this is still one of the main challenges. Howes discussed the seminal article by sensory historian Mark Jenner in the American Historical ReviewFollow Your Nose? Smell, Smelling, and Their Histories’ as an example of how the sensory turn might have put the cultural history of smell on the agenda, but scholars also remained ‘nose averse’ – critical about the nose as an instrument of knowledge and about olfactory recreations of historical scents. Howes says he would delete the question mark from Jenner’s title.

Connected to this debate is the question about whether the Western world really experienced an ‘olfactory decline’ in the 19th-and 20th century. According to Howes, contemporary critical attitudes towards ‘kwowing by sensing’ are a result of a discrediting of the lower senses. This has its origin in a variety of developments, such as the transition from humoral and miasma theory to the germ theory of disease, and the impact of philosophers like Kant (who disqualified the fleeting, transitory sense of smell and banned it from his aesthetics), Freud (who had a “nasal complex,” according to Howes, and discredited olfaction as animalistic), and Proust (who tied smell firmly to memory and the emotions, and therefore pushed smell in the domain of the irrational). Although Howes underlined the rhetorical power of the Proustian statement that smells are “gateways into the past”, he warned against a simple connection between smell and emotion, reducing the sense of smell as an irrational instrument of hedonic appraisal.

Howes presented numerous examples of the wide array of uses that smell had in previous eras. Smell was regarded as a spiritual power (e.g. in Christianity, due to its association with the breath or spiritus, it was believed that Christ would ‘smell’ out those souls who should go to heaven and those that should go to hell on Judgement Day). In Sandalwood and carrion : smell in premodern Indian religion and culture, James McHugh describes how smell can also function as a spatial sense, a mode of orientation.

Howes concluded his lecture with some advice for olfactory explorers:

  • Liberate the nose!
  • Recant Kant. Avoid Freud. Use Proust, but keep in mind that sense of smell is also a faculty of cognition.
  • Be aware of ‘tunnel olfaction’ – take a relational, cultural approach to the study of the sensorium.
  • Follow your nose, but be prepared to be hard-nosed, for olfactory research will open new doors, but you will also have to deal with many conservative gatekeepers. So: keep your eyes open for alternative pathways for (financial) support for your research.
  • Keep your nostrils open – cultivate your olfactory capacities – sense between the lines.

The discussion that followed amongst the Smellinar participants was lively. Jonathan Reinharz, another pioneer in sensory studies and author of Past Scents: Historical Perspectives on Smell, underlined that the revision of smell as an instrument of cognition also closely connects to the way emotion studies have reconceptualized emotions from animalist, irrational impulses, to modes of appraisal and cognition. Asifa Majid, expert in olfactory language and cognition, discussed with Howes the ambiguous role of neuroscience and psychology, which have furthered knowledge about smell (Majid favorably mentioned a recent article by Rekow et al. which describes how the sense of smell plays a key role in initiating complex visual categorizations in the infant brain), but also may have hindered more anthropological and cultural historical approaches by prioritizing the laboratory as the primary context for investigation. Odeuropa project lead Inger Leemans and Howes discussed how experimental and multi-disciplinary research teams, like the Sensory Studies Center in Canada, can create a safe environment for scientific exploration and innovation. The center works with the concept of ‘research creation’ (so as to valorize non-academic or artistic research development) and is now preparing a page on its website dedicated to the junior sensory explorers – that is, the Next Generation Sensory Studies Scholars and Artists. Michelle Krell Kydd (educates on smell through “Smell & Tell” workshops, at the University of Michigan) discussed whether Covid is not only resulting in more interest about olfaction, but also in more anxieties and new prejudices against smell.

Paola Totaro announced that she is publishing a new book on how the Covid pandemic is changing attitudes to smell. The work of sensory ethnographers such as Anna Harris was mentioned, which analyses physical examination by doctors (a sensing of the body, through the body) and other ways of embodied learning like knitting. The discussion concluded with stating the importance of sensory literacy, the ability to orchestrate and employ the senses in our digital age.

 

Further reading:

David Howes, “Epilogue: Futures of Smells Past” in Mark M. Smith (ed.) Smell and History: A Reader. Morgantown: West Virginia University Press, 2019

The second Odeuropa Smellinar will be hosted on June 23, with olfactory linguist/ linguistic psychology Asifa Mahjid, olfactory historian Holy Dugan & Heritage Science expert Matija Strlič.