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.

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.

Understanding the Olfactory Lexicon

Linguists have observed in several studies that languages seem to have a smaller vocabulary to describe smells compared to other senses. Odours are often described borrowing terms from other senses, for example “sweet” or “fresh”, or relying on qualities of objects, like “musky” or “metallic”. On the other hand, other domains such as perfumery and oenology make use of extremely precise and structured repositories of terms and qualities used by professionals for describing perfumes and wines from an olfactory perspective. One of the goals of the text processing team of Odeuropa is to understand these phenomena and analyse whether there are differences across languages in the way in which odours are described. Is the smell-related dimension of the olfactory vocabulary something that is more evident in some languages? For example, does Slovenian, which is a Balto-Slavic language, have different characteristics in terms of olfactory vocabulary compared to Romance or Germanic languages like Italian and English? If ‘yes’, are there historical or cultural reasons for this?

We aim to address these questions using text mining techniques by processing large amounts of digitised texts covering four centuries and automatically extracting the terminology pertaining to smell. To this purpose, we are collecting freely available texts issued between 1650 and 1925 and covering different domains, in the seven project languages (English, German, French, Latin, Dutch, Slovene, and Italian). These texts range from travel literature to scientific texts and medical records. This process takes a long time because after preparing a detailed list of available sources, the data need to be downloaded, cleaned, standardised and accompanied with the correct metadata. While the Odeuropa multilingual corpus is being completed, we are testing different approaches to terminology extraction. Our testbed is the GoogleNgram repository, a large collection of n-grams (i.e. word sequences) extracted from Google Books divided by year of publication.

The n-grams cover the period of interest for Odeuropa, allowing us to perform preliminary analyses aimed at comparing terminology in multiple languages over time. In this analysis, we start from a small list of smell-related words provided by Odeuropa domain experts such as “odour”, “smelly”, “reek”. We then extract for different time periods the terms that have the highest association strength with the smell words, meaning that they tend to appear together more frequently than usual. Terms co-occurring with the smell words provide a concise overview of the semantic domains associated with odours over time, and make comparisons across languages possible. For example, we can analyse terms related to “odor” (English) , “odore” (Italian) and “reuk” (Dutch) for the n-grams between 1900 and 1925. These are displayed in the picture below, where the bubble dimension is proportional to the association strength. Some concepts mentioned in relation to smell seem to be present for the three languages, for example flowers, tobacco and sanctity. On the other hand, in English, medical-related terms are more present, while for Italian food and beverages are mentioned (see also “sapore” / “taste”) and for Dutch, fishing seems to play a role in the word association. For now, our results are too preliminary to draw conclusions on olfactory terminology, but we are really looking forward to understanding what texts from the past tell us about odours and their story.

Google ngram visualisation
Terms extracted from Google N-grams that are more frequently used associated with “odor”, “odore” and “reuk”.