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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Privy histories / Secrete(n) geschiedenis. Fighting stink in the ‘Golden Age’

On Wednesday 16 September 2020 (8-10pm), Inger Leemans will give a lecture, Privy histories / Secrete(n) geschiedenis. Fighting stink in the ‘Golden Age’ as part of the Odorama ‘Law and Odor’ series at Mediamatic Amsterdam.

In her lecture Inger Leemans will discuss the malodours of the ‘Golden Age’. What were the olfactory challenges facing early modern cities such as Antwerp and Amsterdam? How did they try to cope with stench? Diving into the old archives and walking through the Antwerp sewers, cultural historian Inger Leemans digs up old dirt. Scent designer Frank Bloem – The Sniffaroo – will freshen up the presentation with malodours and fragrant cures.

Tickets available via Mediamatic.

Leemans lecture poster

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.