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.

Annotating the Smell of Lightning

by: Sanne Steen

One of Odeuropa’s goals is to extract relevant smell references in historical texts. An early step of this process is creating annotated texts for a language technology benchmark, i.e. we mark up texts with information which terms refer to smells to evaluate the performance of automatic tools on detecting smell references in texts. As an annotator, I read Dutch fragments of early modern texts about topics ranging from travel and science to poetry and theater. These sixteenth- to nineteenth-century text fragments were selected because they contained one or more smell words such as lucht (air), neus (nose), and rook (smoke/smelled). My task was to trace the smells and annotate anything related to these smells, such as quality, perceiver, location and smell source. Context is often very important for this task. For example, the small phrase “he smells” can mean that he emits smell, or that he is using his sense of smell. Another difficulty appeared once, in a scientific text describing the smell of electricity and lightning. This snippet described not only the actual smell but also falsified previous explanations about the origin of the smell which poses a new hypothesis about the true nature of this smell. As the argument proceeded, words recurred as very different smell elements:

The text fragment about lightning in the annotating tool with my annotations. The English translation is as follows:

4) In order to prove the smell of electricity, it is often argued that, in buildings and other places where lightning hit, even when it did not generate fire, people sense a sulphurous smell, often for a long time.
5) This is easy to explain, because in these cases the lightning did not bring the sulphur-like smell but found the sulphur at the place it struck.
6) In the ironwork of buildings, in building bricks, cement and chalk, sand, et cetera, everywhere are sulphur particles, which, where the lightning hits them, burn and as such spread the sulphur-like smell.

Let’s dive into this smell fragment. The text originates from an essay about peat vapour, which was published by Jan Sasse in the Vaderlandsche letteroefeningen in May 1861. Sasse writes that peat vapour was believed to be composed of dissolved lightning, because both the vapour and lightning smelled like sulphur. The smell of lightning was experienced in places where lightning hit, even when it did not catch fire (line 4). Therefore, people believed that the lightning itself carried the smell. Indeed, in his Natuurlyke historie van Holland (1769), which is also in the benchmark, the Dutch natural scientist Johannes le Francq van Berkhey cites his colleague Pieter van Musschenbroeck who characterises the smell of lightning as similar to that of burning sulphur. Van Musschenbroeck argued that the lightning is composed of sulphur: “Because the places where lightning hit spread a smell of burning sulphur, one can hardly doubt that the major substance of lightning is sulphur.” (“Dewyl de plaatsen van den Blixem geslagen eenen reuk van brandenden Zwavel van zich verspreiden, kan men naauwlyks twyfelen, of de voornaamste stof welke den Blixem maakt, zal Zwavel zyn”)

) Sasse contests this statement, however, arguing that the odour carrier is the place where the lightning hit (line 5). The lightning strike is instead the circumstance which exposes the smell (line 6).

Sasse was heading in the right direction when explaining the smell of lightning. He was correct in describing the lightning as a circumstance rather than odour carrier. However, he may be wrong when identifying the odour carrier and the smell source. In his book Nose Dive (2020), Harold McGee attributes the origin of the smell of lightning to ozone (O3), which is experienced as fresh and pungent. Ozone is created from dioxygen (O2) when the air is struck with electrical charge. Thus, if I were to annotate McGee, I would annotate lightning as circumstance, ozone as smell source and completely omit the odour carrier because the ozone does not exist before the lightning strikes the air.

Fortunately, I have never actually experienced the smell of lightning before. Nevertheless, the text fragments awakened my very first smell memory. Growing up, my family had a big bulky television. When we would sit down and watch a TV show, I greatly enjoyed getting as close to the screen as possible. Distinguishing the red, green and blue pixels, I was surprised by how these three colours created a moving colour image. I could feel the minimal sparks that came from the screen and, importantly, smell the warm material and hot dust. More than modern screens, older televisions were sensory feasts. The description of the smell of lightning made me think of this particular smell and brought me back to childhood. In Odeuropa, we want to make it easier for people to access such ‘smell memories’ which is why we are developing technologies to extract smell references from text and putting them into an openly accessible database.

MDK21 Recap

On 1 September 2021, Odeuropa and Polifonia co-organised the First International Workshop on Multisensory Data & Knowledge at the Language, Data and Knowledge (LDK) conference. The workshop was hybrid events, with about 20 online participants and 6 on location in Zaragoza, Spain. Six papers were presented from authors from various different time zones on different aspects of the analysis of music, smell, language, and art. As organisers, we were very happy to see the breadth of topics and the creativity with which the authors take on the different research questions.

Together with the other LDK workshops, we are now preparing the proceedings, but you can already find the pre-prints of the papers on the MDK website.  With the organising team, we are thinking about a follow-up workshop. Please get in touch with us if you have thoughts on this!