Follow Your Nose: A Guided Tour with Smell

Written by: Christina Kotsopoulou

On the 5th of April, 2022, at 19.00, Museum Ulm in Germany launched the olfactory guided tour, Follow Your Nose. A Guided Tour with Smell, which was designed in collaboration with Odeuropa and International Flavours and Fragrances (IFF). The aim of this tour is to pair historically informed scents with eight artworks from the museum’s permanent collection and engage visitors into a multisensory and ‘nose-opening’ experience with art. The launch was a two-hour event that included introductory talks from both Museum Ulm and Odeuropa, enlightening discussions with the perfumers of IFF who were present that evening and engaging short versions of the olfactory guided tour in English and German. 

All the scents of the olfactory tour at the museum office of Dr. Eva Leistenschneider where she welcomed the Odeuropa team before the launch started. Photo taken by Christina Kotsopoulou.
Dr. Eva Leistenschneider prepared Sofia Ehrich and Lizzie Marx with scented blotters and instructions on how the guided tours would be conducted by the three of them that evening. Photo taken by Christina Kotsopoulou.

Once the launch began, deputy director of the museum, Dr. Eva Leistenschneider, the museum’s director, Stefanie Dathe, and the mayor of Ulm gave a word of thanks to everyone involved in this project, explained the challenges of planning this project during the Covid -19 lockdowns in 2021 and emphasized on the importance of introducing smell into museums. On behalf of Odeuropa, Sofia Ehrich and  Lizzie Marx briefly spoke about the nature and goals of the Odeuropa project. Afterwards, the four guided tours that would be given in English and German were introduced as well as the IFF perfumers who were there that evening to answer people’s questions about the making of a scent. 

Stefanie Dathe, the director of Museum Ulm, giving a word of thanks to all the involved members of the project. Photo taken by Christina Kotsopoulou.

My experience of the launch started with an insightful discussion with the IFF perfumers in which I was able to learn their thinking process when creating a scent to pair with a painting. In particular, based on their perspective, it became clear that a perfumer’s approach depends first and foremost on the type of scent. Working with an abstract painting and thus, an abstract scent can be more creative for perfumers who can then use raw materials by colour to achieve the best result. On the contrary, when a scent is historically informed it must be based not only on the art historical background of the painting but also the historical period it was made to determine what kind of materials were available back then. Interestingly, the IFF perfumers worked with at least fifty raw material scents to achieve the final scents for the olfactory tour in the Museum Ulm mainly because of the malodorous aspects of a few paintings, such as the artwork of Dieter Roth, Kleine Landschaft that depicts the natural decay of food materials. However, the biggest challenge during their process of creating a scent for an artwork was meeting the expectations of the perfumer and museum. Therefore, the IFF perfumers emphasized on the importance of a good and constant communication between both sides during the whole creating process as well as on the instrumental role of physically experiencing the artworks that will be translated into scents: an experience that the IFF perfumers unfortunately could not have in the early stage of their thinking process due to the general lockdowns of Covid -19 in Germany.

The IFF perfumers’ table at the Museum hall with scent samples and books about the making of scents for the public. Photo taken by Sofia Ehrich.

The two English olfactory tours which followed the introductory talks of the launch were given by Lizzie Marx and Sofia Ehrich and each one of them included three different paintings. Depending on the artwork and how recognisable the theme was, both Lizzie and Sofia interacted with their small groups by asking them what was depicted every time and what scent could be linked with each artwork before handing participants the scented blotters and informing them about the art historical and olfactory aspects of the painting. It was only in the case of Ellsworth Kelly’s Orange Blue, that the group was asked  to smell the blotters in advance of seeing the artwork so that they could confirm whether or not they smelled any of the colours  after viewing the artwork. The public’s reactions to the question about what they smell each time was very positive and almost every participant tried to guess the ingredients of the scents with great success. The most interesting reaction, though, was when the public’s expectations would be fulfilled or not after seeing and ‘smelling’ a painting, particularly the malodorous choices of the collection. For instance, the scent of hell was expected to be more foul but  instead it was even found pleasant by a few participants. All in all though, the public responded very enthusiastically to the pairing of a painting with scent from the first moment saying that a “scent can convey more messages about an  artwork than the image alone”.

Sofia Ehrich giving an olfactory tour for the scent of hell in front of the painting Christ in Limbo. Photo taken by Christina Kotsopoulou.
Lizzie Marx giving an olfactory tour in English for the scent of tanned leather in front of the Portrait of Helena Schermar. Photo taken by Christina Kotsopoulou.

In sum, the launch of the olfactory guided tour, Follow Your Nose. A Guided Tour with Smell, at the Museum Ulm was a very enlightening experience about the public’s olfactory reactions and the IFF perfumers’ perspectives. Learning about a perfumer’s approaches and challenges when creating a pairing scent for an artwork, was a unique opportunity that the event offered and one that I particularly enjoyed due to my limited knowledge on the subject. Since the official opening of the olfactory guided tours to the public, according to Dr. Eva Leistenschneider, the tours have been very positively received especially by non-regular museum visitors  who found their experience with art more relatable through the scents. Hopefully, these olfactory tours will continue to be well received by the public and attract more curious participants from around the world during the next months that they will be conducted at the Ulm Museum! 

Please find further information about the available dates for the olfactory guided tour, Follow Your Nose. A Guided Tour with Smell, at Museum Ulm here.

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: