NOW OPEN: Follow your Nose at Museum Ulm

This Spring, visitors to Museum Ulm can discover the historical scents hidden in the museum’s art collection through a guided tour designed in collaboration with the Odeuropa project.

The tour, Follow Your Nose: a Guided Tour with Smells, which launches on April 5th, 2022, will allow participants to appreciate art with their nose – by pairing scents with works of art that contain visual references to smells. The Odeuropa project developed these scents in collaboration with Museum Ulm and the fragrance company International Flavours and Fragrances (IFF). By using historical recipes to recreate these unique scents, Odeuropa aims to turn a museum visit into a multisensory experience, opening new opportunities to enjoy, learn and engage with the collection.

“The use of smells related to the stories in the paintings offers new insights to the public, and helps understand the context in which the artworks were created”, explained Dr. Eva Leistenscheneider, deputy director of Museum Ulm. This is particularly true for the portrait of Ulm Councilman Eitel Besserer from the early 16th century: Leistenschneider observed that the painting “…contains a pomander filled with fragrant scents, for which the IFF’s recreated scent brings a different way to experience art, in a much more immediate way than ‘classic’ museum tours do”. The smell of the pomander is one of the ten smells that visitors can experience in this tour.

Dr. Inger Leemans, Odeuropa project lead, highlighted the importance of “developing an ‘olfactory gaze’ to ‘see’ smells in artworks, as part of experiencing heritage with senses other than vision. We are also collaborating with Museum Ulm in measuring visitors’ reactions to smell in the museum, in order to understand how to offer a safe and meaningful experience”.

This event is held in the context of research project Odeuropa, which is capturing the smells of Europe as part of our cultural heritage. Funded by the EU Horizon 2020 programme and ongoing until 2023, Odeuropa is the first European initiative to use artificial intelligence (AI) to investigate the importance of scents and smelling, and to discover how scents have moulded our communities and traditions. Coupling recent findings of this project with Museum Ulm’s visual art collection from the 14th – 21st centuries, the museum tour explores new historic narratives involving artefacts, people, places and events connected by scent.

Here in this post are two examples of the stories connecting artworks and scent in the Museum Ulm tour:

Portrait of Eitel Besserer

Portrait of Eitel Besserer, Martin Schaffner, 1516, oil on panel, 43.5 x 31cm

In 1516, the Ulm artist Martin Schaffner (1478–1548) painted a portrait of the councillor of the city Eitel Besserer (1450–1533). As his hands are occupied by a rosary, his parted mouth is uttering prayer. Besserer came from a patrician family, and Schaffner reflects his status in the masterfully painted fur hat and the fur trim of his clothing. Hanging from his rosary is a silver filigree pendant, another luxury item.

The silver pendant is known as a pomander, a piece of fragranced jewellery. The pendant was used to store fragranced ingredients that were bound together in a ball, and whose scent was diffused through the pomander’s perforations. In the early modern period, foul smells were believed to be harmful to the body, while pleasant smells were thought to be protective, especially during plague outbreaks. Pomanders were thus smelled as a precautionary measure against disease. But the pomander’s scent could also take on religious significance. The portrait suggests that Besserer’s hands will warm up the pomander and release a pleasing scent as he prays.

Pomander formulas can be found in household manuals and medical treatises. The fragrance that has been created by IFF to accompany the portrait is a typical formula for a pomander from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It includes nutmeg, cloves, rosemary, cinnamon, rose, ambergris (produced in the bowels of the sperm whale), and civet (produced in the perineal glands of the civet cat). Certain ingredients were expensive, as nutmeg and cloves were imported from south-east Asia, and ambergris was very rare. The pomander in Besserer’s portrait creates a fragrant atmosphere for his worship, and it magnifies his status through the precious ingredients.

Anastasis / Christ in limbo

Martin Schaffner, 1549, Oil on panel, 146 x 112cm

Another painting by Schaffner depicts an animated scene of Christ in Limbo. Before his resurrection, Christ descended to Limbo to redeem the condemned souls of the righteous. Schaffner paints Christ reaching out to figures who clamber out of the opening of Limbo’s fortress. A demonic creature spits fire at Christ, and thick grey fumes seep out of the fortress’ walls, which suggests that the smell of Hell is smoky.

In early modern thought, the smell of Hell and evil was associated with the foul. Angels were believed to give off the pleasant smell of sanctity, and demons were believed to leave behind stench. The Catholic theologian Saint Ignatius of Loyola (1491–1556) encouraged worshippers to reflect on Hell using all of their senses. To him, it smelled of smoke, brimstone (a scent like rotten eggs), corruption, and rottenness.

The scent that has been created by IFF is an evocation of Hell, inspired by how the historical imagination once perceived it. Reflecting the vapours in the scene, the scent has smoky notes, and the rottenness of Hell has been created by using the compounds indole (the scent of decay found in lilies) and scatole (a faecal scent). It offers a whiff of how the harrowing atmosphere of Hell was once believed to smell.

Credits: This text was co-written by Dr. William Tullett (Odeuropa, Historian), Lizzie Marx (Odeuropa, Art Historian) and Dr. Eva Leistenschneider (Museum Ulm, Curator). High resolution photographs and more information:

NOW OPEN: ICPR 2022 ODeuropa Competition on Olfactory Object Recognition (ODOR)

Painting: Jan Steen: The way you hear it, is the way you sing it, Painting c. 1665, Mauritshuis

We are proud to announce the launch of the ICPR 2022 ODeuropa Competition on Olfactory Object Recognition (ODOR), the world’s first competition for the detection of olfactory objects in historical artworks.

Olfaction is a crucial element of human experience, but has not gained a lot of attention in cultural heritage. The ICPR-ODeuropa Olfactory Recognition (ODOR) challenge has been created in the context of the EU-funded Odeuropa Project, which aims to remedy this shortcoming by promoting, preserving, and recreating the olfactory heritage of Europe.

Through this challenge, we want to promote the development of object detection algorithms that work under realistic conditions, such as varying image quality and modalities, long-tailed category distributions, or fine-grained detection classes. Being able to detect olfactory objects (e.g. tobacco pipes, perfumed gloves) might in turn lead to the ability to recognize more complex, implicit smell references such as smell gestures or olfactory iconography. The challenge thus promotes a multi-sensory perspective in computer vision and digital humanities.

Interested in competing and putting your computers up to the sniff-test? Find out everything you need to know to register here!

Odeuropa x Berlin Center for Cold War Studies (BKKK) Workshop: Malodours as Cultural Heritage?

By: Christina Kotsopoulou & Sofia Ehrich

Sort: Strawberries ‘Elsanta’ / Place of production: San Giovanni Lupatoto, Verona, Italy / Cultivation method: Foil green house / Time of harvest: June – October / Transporting distance: 741 km / Means of transportation: Truck Carbon footprint (total) per kg: 0,35 kg / Water requirement (total) per kg: 348 l / Price: 7,96 € / kg; Photo courtesy of Klaus Pichler.

On December 15th and 16th, 2021, the Odeuropa project in collaboration with the Berlin Center for Cold War Studies (BKKK), hosted its second workshop: Malodours as Cultural Heritage?. The goal of this workshop was to explore and challenge the topic of stench from varying angles and provide methods and techniques using malodours as an important means of storytelling within heritage institutes. The workshop targeted different questions such as: what do malodours tell us about transitions and advancements within urban, social, cultural, and environmental contexts? How can the sense of smell act as a measurement of analysis for histories of the past and present? And how can malodours be used as a storytelling technique within heritage institutes? 

The workshop consisted of twenty nine ‘lightning talks’ from thirty one experts with interdisciplinary knowledge about malodours.  The presentations were categorised into five different sessions with the first two sessions taking place the first day of the workshop: 1) Malodours as Cultural Heritage? and 2) Smell Cabinets, which consisted of two parallel sessions that the audience could choose to attend –  Smell Cabinet A : Smells from ‘Hidden’ Infrastructures – Sewers and War and Smell Cabinet B: Smells of Leather and Body Fluids – , 3) Malodours and Environmental Relations: Past and Present, 4) Shaping ‘Otherness’ through Smell and lastly 5) How to Incorporate Malodours in Heritage Institutes?. Each session was followed by an opportunity for the audience to ask questions.

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the workshop was held entirely online. Regardless of the online form of this workshop, Odeuropa stayed faithful to its nose-on approach by developing a ‘Do it Yourself’ curriculum for remote smelling which online participants could follow before and while attending the workshop.

Odeuropa intern, Christina Kotsopoulou smelling the remote DIY scent of mould as suggested in the program of the workshop for the talk of Cecilia Bembibre on “Fluffy Growth and the Threat of Decay: An Exploration of the Smell of Mould”. Photo taken by Sanj.

Over 160 participants registered to participate in the workshop. All participants were ready to exchange knowledge about malodours – odours which many heritage institutes and perfume makers tend to avoid due to their intensity and the current lack of knowledge surrounding them. This workshop opened new doors in considering malodours – as well as fragrances – as an integral part of our cultural heritage. Keep reading for a summary of the two-day workshop.

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