Odeuropa x Mediamatic Workshop: Working with scent in GLAMs – Best Practices and Challenges

The Odeuropa Workshop scent kit designed and created by Mediamatic team members. Picture by Sofia Ehrich.

On May 20th, 2021 the Odeuropa project, in collaboration with Mediamatic, Amsterdam, organized its first workshop, Working with scent in GLAMs: Best Practices and Challenges. The main goal of this workshop was to collect experiences about working with scent in galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (GLAMs), and learn more about the challenges and concerns which may hinder these institutions from working with scent. What knowledge is needed in order for GLAMs to start implementing smell into their programs? How can smell benefit museums and enhance visitor experiences?

Thirteen experts came together with a range of knowledge about storytelling with and the preservation of (heritage) scents. Their presentations were divided into three panels: 1) Why work with scent in GLAMs? 2) Storytelling (challenges and results) and 3) How to integrate smell into GLAMs? Because of the lockdown, we organized an online workshop that ensured the ‘nose first’ approach Odeuropa has in mind for all its events. Therefore, all speakers were able to pick a scent to accompany their talk which were either chosen from the scent library of Mediamatic, Amsterdam, or provided from the speaker’s own collection. The Mediamatic team (scent designer Frank Bloem, Nour Akoum and Jessica Cohen) created scent kits which could hold 12 different scented blotters, without the scents evaporating or contaminating each other (see image). The kits were sent to the 40 participants (for this first workshop we worked by invitation only, the next workshop will be open to all).

The workshop consisted of 13 ‘lightning talks’ and provided ample opportunity for open discussions. Over 40 participants shared their experiences of working with scent and conveyed ideas about what they think is missing in the industry. The knowledge shared not only focused on the challenges and barriers which face the inclusion of scent into GLAMs, but also on the advantages. 

Among the challenges mentioned were difficulties surrounding the safeguarding of heritage scents. Olfactory elements of heritage objects are often disposed of because they are perceived as dangerous to the preservation of the object. It is also difficult to preserve historic scents and perfumes because of their volatile nature. Scents are sensitive and must be protected from exposure to light, heat and oxygen. Additionally, incorporating scents into environments pose conservation concerns. For example, some GLAM professionals are concerned that scents can harm the artworks. Lastly, there is a concern that the incorporation of scent will result in a hedonic reaction from the visitor, defined by the pleasure or displeasure they experience from the scent and the experience. 

Despite these challenges, our attendees also offered many advantages. Incorporating smell into GLAMs provides new ways of engaging with the artworks and makes the ‘invisible’ elements of historical depictions ‘visible’ to audiences. The traditional ‘no touch’ and ocularcentric environment of many institutions can separate visitors from the artifacts. Therefore, introducing scent narratives into GLAMs expands knowledge about artworks and historical sites and provides a direct and engaging perspective of the past. This approach not only impacts the memorability of the visit but is also an excellent tool for broadening accessibility efforts, improving inclusivity with different types of audiences.        

In conclusion, there is much to be achieved in order to overcome the current challenges which face olfactory GLAM experiences. Our participants proposed a few ways we can overcome these challenges. Firstly, the way smell is presented in relation to an artwork or artifact matters. Any and all context changes a visitor’s perception of the experience and object. Therefore, in addition to conservation and curatorial concerns, all surrounding content and context must be considered. Secondly, the curator, conservation team, and creator of the smell should work together from the beginning in order to avoid conflicts and surprises later. Lastly, trust should be built between scent professionals and GLAMs. This would provide transparency and a sharing of knowledge, easing many concerns that GLAMs have surrounding the incorporation of scent. Through this open communication, a ‘how-to’ guide explaining the do’s and don’ts of olfactory museum practices should be created, providing GLAM professionals access to information about the toxicity, flammability, and conservational risks certain scents pose. The Odeuropa project will develop a Toolkit for Olfactory Storytelling to meet these needs. In our next workshop, we will present the framework for this toolkit to the community, to get feedback and advice. One of the most important things we learned from the workshop is the importance of knowledge sharing as the olfactory heritage field has so many different experts. We are committed to honour their work, while searching new paths for the future.

Speakers and Talk Titles:

Panel #1: Why Work with Smell within GLAMs?

  • Jorge Otero Pailos (United States) – An Olfactory Reconstruction of the Philip Johnson Glass House
  • Isabelle Chazot (France) – L’Osmothèque: The World’s only Living Perfume Archive
  • Marie Clapot (United States) – Olfaction: A Tool towards Democratizing the Museum Experience
  • Lizzie Marx (Netherlands) – ‘Fleeting – Scents in Colour’ at the Mauritshuis

Panel #2:  Storytelling (challenges and results)

  • Caro Verbeek (Netherlands) – Challenges for Tour Guides
  • Chris Tuckley (United Kingdom) – Smelly Vikings: Synthetic Fragrances at the JORVIK Viking Centre from 1984 to the Present Day
  • Peter de Cupere (Belgium) – The Use of ‘Olfactory Transfers’ in Exhibition Models
  • Andrea Buettner (Germany) – Smell: Transporter of Information and Meaning since the Early Beginning of Life

Panel #3:  How to integrate smell into GLAMs?

  • Cecilia Bembibre (United Kingdom) – Scent of Place: Old Books and Historic Libraries
  • Tasha Marks (United Kingdom) – AVM Curiosities & The Sensory Museum
  • Lizzie Ostrom (United Kingdom) – How to Tame Your Dragon: Bringing Scent into a Gallery or Museum
  • Saskia Wilson Brown (United States) – The Institute of Art & Olfaction

A Nose First Approach: Connecting historical depictions with scents of the past at Mediamatic, Amsterdam

This month, a few members of the Dutch Odeuropa team went to Mediamatic’s Aroma Lab in Amsterdam in search of historic scents. Odeuropa Trainee Sofia Ehrich has spent her traineeship working with Caro Verbeek detecting visual representations of scent in historical artworks, also called olfactory iconographies. Some of these olfactory iconographies were integrated into Odeuropa’s “Nose First art historical odour wheel.” You can view the wheel, which is a work in progress, below. Odeuropa Trainee, Jenna The, kicked off her traineeship with this smell session. She is currently researching the smell of animals in nineteenth-century Amsterdam and enjoyed how easy the odour wheel made it to navigate the overwhelming amount of scents found at Mediamatic.

This blogpost documents Sofia and Jenna’s perspectives of their experience at the Aroma Lab and aims to highlight the importance of not only viewing historical depictions and reading historical texts which reference scent, but how smelling those scents can add another level of cognition and understanding of the past.

Sofia:

For my trip to Mediamatic’s Aroma Lab, I wanted to connect the olfactory iconographies I have been researching throughout my traineeship to actual smells. I have become familiar with detecting depictions of smell, however being able to connect this to a physical smell was still lacking. Using the “Odeuropa Art Historical Scent Wheel,” I sniffed many smells but here I will discuss my discovery of the ‘resinous’ and ‘roots’ category.

Resinous: 

Resins come from plants or trees and have been historically used in religious practices for incense burning. By referring to the scent wheel, I explored the making of the Tabernacle, in which resins play a prominent role. The nose-first scent wheel connected this Biblical story with galbanum but with further research, I was also led to Frankincense and onycha, while the verse from the Book of Exodus specifically instructs a recipe for the making of the Jewish Tabernacle: “Then the Lord said to Moses, ‘Take fragrant spices—gum resin, onycha and galbanum—and pure frankincense, all in equal amounts.’” One of these listed ingredients, onycha, which comes from the shells of sea snails, was specially brought out by Frank Bloem. To let off its scent, he lit it on fire. All three of these scents were similar in their thick and dense feeling through the nostrils and at the same time, their smokey qualities provide a cleansing feeling to the air which I think perfectly reflects their religious significance.   

Roots

Spikenard (Nardostachys jatamansi) originates from a flowering root and is known for its affiliation with the divine. Spikenard plays a prominent role in depictions of Mary Magdalene and Mary of Bethany, who are often depicted with an ointment jar filled with the scent. This scent was particularly striking for me as it took me back to walking through the canyons in my home state of California: wet, healthy soil, slightly spicy and fresh.

Jenna:

If I were to describe my experience at the Aroma Lab in one word, I would say it was surprising. The animalistic category on the art historical odour wheel led me to smell musk, civet and castoreum. In addition I smelled undecavertol and para-cresyl acetate, which are part of the smell of horses, and pig smell and baby elephant smell, which Frank had made himself.

My first reaction to the smells was repulsion, which changed my perspective of animal smells. Before the smell session I associated animal smells mostly with farm scents, which I do not perceive as bad. But now that I actually smelled the animal odours up close, I discovered that most of them were actually penetrating and salty. Civet in particular struck me, as I did not like the smell, whereas it used to be appreciated and used in perfumes. Even though this substance was only used in very low concentrations in perfume making, it did make me aware that the perception of smell is culturally determined. While twenty-first century me was repelled by it, nineteenth-century me might have treasured the smell.

Not only does the perception of odours change, but I also learned that smells themselves can change too. Frank let us smell the scent of a baby elephant, which differs from the smell of grown-up elephants. This made me realise that in my research, I do not only have to distinguish the smells of different animals, but also take into account that the same animals can smell differently at different stages in their lives.

Conclusions:

Our experience at Mediamatic’s Aroma Lab was not only fun and educational, but we also learned a few valuable lessons about working with scent, a volatile medium which is often difficult to recall from memory. We both wished we would have better documented our perception of the scent before, during, and after we smelled it. We also feel that since most individuals are not well trained when it comes to historic smells, it is a valuable practice to continue to actively, deliberately and repeatedly smell things to become more familiar with and recognize these scents in the future.

Making and Consuming Perfume in Eighteenth-Century England

This post by William Tullet originally appeared in The Recipes Project.

A survey of the vast collection in the Wellcome library suggests that the presence of perfumery in manuscript recipe books slowly declined during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Why did this happen? One answer could be that perfumery and pharmacy were slowly separating during the eighteenth century. Previously, perfume, pies, and prescriptions were promiscuously mixed because the boundaries between ‘food’, ‘cosmetics’, and ‘medicines’ were blurred in the 1600s: for instance, odours were thought to contain medical powers. Eighteenth-century physicians were increasingly sceptical about this possibility. Fumigations (to purify the air of houses) and pomanders (balls of perfume to protect against plague) were less common in recipe books by 1750. Perhaps perfume no longer fitted within the holistic tradition of ‘kitchen-physic’. Yet, despite the concerns of the medical profession, perfumes continued to be advertised and used for their medicinal benefits. Fainting dandies at the opera could still reach for the eau de cologne when all the extended vowels and overwhelming music got too much.

Engraving by T. Cook after W. Hogarth
‘Tom Rakewell in a cell in the Fleet Prison. Engraving by T. Cook after W. Hogarth.’ by William Hogarth. Credit: Wellcome Collection. CC BY.

Another explanation is the increasing availability of ready-made perfumery, printed recipe books, and an emerging sense of commercial, fashion-oriented, consumer behaviour. Whilst print could easily be incorporated into manuscript recipe books, the proliferation of ready-made perfumery certainly had an impact. Insurance records on Locating London’s Past list over 300 perfumers in London between 1777 and 1786. The influence of the market is detectable in the introductions to print recipe books. For example, Simon Barbe’s The French Perfumer (English translation, London, 1696) lists biblical and noble patrons of perfume to inspire home-brewed perfumery. Charles Lillie’s The British Perfumer (London, 1740s but published 1822) is introduced as a tool for negotiating the commercial market in perfumery: it would help prevent ‘purchasers of perfumes’ from ‘being impose[d] upon… beyond a fair, moderate, and reasonable profit’. Lillie’s book also contains some choice words on domestic perfumery. He attacked those who used ‘scraps of old women’s receipts’ and ‘gleamings from table-talk’. Above all it is fellow perfumers, working for profit in a luxury marketplace, to whom Lillie addresses his recipes.

Lillie’s recipe book has lots to say on how perfumers used their senses to assay the quality of ingredients. The inability to describe odours with precision (except through an emotional vocabulary or by reference to other materials) or remember them easily meant that touch, sight, and taste were thus the chief ways of testing ingredients. Examining ambergris, for example, Lillie noted that the worst was black or dark brown, heavy, hard to break, and had little smell. The best ambergris on the other hand was grey, easy to break and light in weight. If the ambergris had been adulterated with white sand, then Lillie suggested the use of a looking glass to check. Another test involved pricking the material with a hot needle to see if the ‘genuine odour will be given out’. However, Lillie added that ‘best way… to detect such frauds is always for the perfumer to keep by him a small piece of genuine ambergris; and… he should compare their smells by this experiment’. Without the original object smell was never a certain judge.

Where external appearances were similar, as with cassia lignum and cinnamon bark, taste could be used: cinnamon was ‘sharp and biting’ to the taste whereas cassia was ‘sweet and mawkish’. The less salty genoa soap was to the taste, the better quality it was. Touch was mobilised too: clove bark was best when at its most friable, whilst poor quality rice powder, used to make hair powder, was ‘moistened with water to give it a soft and silky feel’. Lillie’s recipe book demonstrates that sensory marks of quality were central for the perfumer because, in an era of economic specialisation, they increasingly relied on druggists, chemists, apothecaries, and grocers for their ingredients. The vanilla-scented gum benjamin (benzoin) was to be had from wax chandlers who used it to perfume sealing wax; druggists were a source for civet, although they adulterated it with honey; and even oils and essences, where the production of commercial quantities required large stills, were to be obtained from chemists ‘who actually distil it themselves’.

Eau-de-cologne
‘Glass bottle for eau de cologne, Paris, France, 1780-1850’ by Science Museum, London. Credit: Science Museum, London. CC BY.

But what about the senses of consumers who bought, rather than made, perfumes? For the small number of individuals who were still making their own perfumery, the perfumer’s shop was important for buying essences and oils ready-made. Mary Forster’s handwritten recipes for soft and hard pomatum, made from hogs’ lard to dress the hair or soften skin, list a range of waters, oils, or essences that could be bought from perfumers and added, depending on preference; these included rose, geranium, and jasmine. Lillie’s book suggests that perfumers were no longer the reliable source of such a wide variety of raw ingredients. Instead they produced ready-made items, some of which – especially waters, essences, and oils – could be used straight away in scent bottles and handkerchiefs or taken home to be used in other recipes. But consumers buying ready-made hair-powder, pomatum, or liquid scents would be far less aware of the colour, texture, weight, and other sensory qualities of the original materials. Perfume advertising also focussed less on particular ingredients and more on the feelings and places the perfumes evoked: in the 1770s Richard Warren’s trade cards evoked biblical frankincense and the odoriferous gales of the east, whilst in 1801, Hester Thrail Piozzia marvelled at the perfumer’s ability to compress ‘India’s fragrance… into a Guinea phial of Odour of Roses’.[1]

What does this tell us about the senses? It might suggest a move closer to a more ‘monolfactory’ (to coin a term) way of smelling, without any sense of a material’s other sensory properties. A loose analogy would be acousmatic listening – where one can hear something but not see the source of the sound (as on the radio). This way of smelling would, during the nineteenth-century, become part of the culture of perfumery we know today – clear, spray-on, liquids that are abstract, aimed at evoking feeling, and carry fewer of the multisensory connotations of the original ingredients. Eighteenth-century recipe books help us trace some of the origins of this slow sensory shift.

[1] Oswald G. Knapp (ed.), The Intimate Letters of Hester Thrale Piozzi and Penelope Pennington, 1788-1821 (London, 1914), p. 229.

Smelling Historical Transformations – How Turkish Cologne-Culture was Revived by Corona

This post by Caro Verbeek originally appeared on the Futurist Scents blog.

About 6 weeks ago – shortly before the ‘intelligent lockdown’ – the familiar smells that characterize my neighborhood in the west of Amsterdam suddenly changed. Not in an unpleasant way, but quite dramatically. I followed my nose and wound up at the small grocery store where I usually do my shopping. A strong refreshing scent seemed to emanate from it, covering the entire block. I figured it was a citrus fruit of some sort, but it was extraordinarily strong.

Upon asking the shopkeeper he promptly replied: “It’s cologne from my home country Turkey. I use it to stay clean!”, and he showed me how he did it by applying some of the liquid lavishly on his hands directly from a big bottle. I wondered if this sudden change of habit, perceivable outside his shop, was connected to the outbreak of Corona. It was. The next day I read in a news item that the phenomenon I had noticed on a local scale, was taking place on an international level. Even the BBC recently picked it up. They merely focused on the economic impact though. But there is so much more to it.

blog eau de cologne

The zesty smell is so well-known and typical for the country, that a national representative – when asked by artist Gayil Nalls what the national scent of Turkey could be – said that:

“The scents of lavender and pine grow lavishly in Turkey. However, if you must choose the most applicable of fragrances, the lemon and rose are certainly the ones that are most popularly used. And of those, Turkey would be represented by lemon. It’s everywhere. The lemon cologne is sprayed on you, given to you, 100% of Turkish people have lemon cologne in their homes. Lemon is a very culturally important smell for us” (Birnur Fertekigil, Counselor and Staff, Permanent Mission of Turkey to the United Nations, you can read more about the olfactory social sculpture World Sensorium and find out which scent was selected by your country here)

The BBC reported that the renewed purpose of cologne was novel, but its practical and medicinal use actually has a long tradition that actually wasn’t lost at all: “I associate lemon with being ill”, a Turkish museum expert had told me during a meeting just a few days prior to the lockdown. “Whenever I was sick as a child my mother gave me cologne”.

In fact, when the first cologne (by the Italian barber Gian Paolo de Feminis and Farina, not by 4711) was marketed in the city of Cologne, it was already promoted as a miracle water, a cure-all elixir, or ‘aqua mirabilis’ as literary historian Richard Stamelan explains:

“In an early attempt of self-promoting hyperbole, Feminis’s “miraculous” water was advertised as a remedy for problems the stomach, skin and even for women going into labour” (2006)

blog eau de cologne farina

The shift from the medicinal to the aesthetic use of eau de Cologne must have occurred in the 19th century:

“Although eau de Cologne was originally introduced to the public as a sort of “cure-all,” a regular “elixir of life,” it now takes its place, not as a pharmaceutical product, but among perfumery” (Septimus Piesse, 1857).

But while advertisements from the 20th century, there are plenty of examples of the medicinal use of eau de Cologe. Apparently it could kill lice as this example from the collection of the Rijksmuseum shows.

blog eau de cologne als medicijn

Eau de Cologne is the oldest still marketed scented product. The recent rise in sales shouldn’t just be explained as an economic phenomenon, but as a historical and cultural development. Its use is as versatile as it is intriguing, and it perceivably connects the present to the past, especially today.

Read more about the history of Turkish cologne here.