Smell is an urgent, but highly under-researched topic in computer science and the humanities. What significance does smell have for society? How should we safeguard our olfactory heritage? How can we extract sensory data from large-scale digital text and image collections? And — why should we?

Our senses are our gateways to the past. Much more so than any other sense, our sense of smell is linked directly to our emotions and our memories. Yet we tend to overlook the significance of scents and smelling, both in our current society as in the past. As today mass digitisation, big data, and bio-physical devices such as health trackers are becoming more central to our daily activities, it becomes all the more urgent that we take great care that such programs properly consider the full range of human experiences and responses to the senses.

At the same time, we lack well-established algorithms, tools, and semantic web standards for olfactory data mining and modelling. Fortunately, one key prerequisite for addressing this problem is already in place. In recent years, European cultural heritage institutions have invested heavily in large-scale digitization: we hold a wealth of object, text and image data which can now be analysed using sophisticated computer science techniques. What remains missing is a broader awareness of the wealth of historical olfactory descriptions, experiences and memories contained within them. We recognize this as both a challenge and an opportunity.

The Odeuropa network was founded in 2020:

  1. to recognize, safeguard, present, and promote olfactory heritage
  2. to develop state-of-the-art AI techniques to identify and trace olfactory information in text and image datasets; to investigate how ‘smell’ is expressed in different languages, with what places it was associated, what kinds of events and practices it characterised, to what emotions it is linked, and how smell and diseases are interrelated, et cetera.
  3. to show that critically engaging our sense of smell and our scent heritage is an important and a viable means for connecting and promoting Europe’s tangible and intangible cultural heritage.