One woman’s fight to capture whiff of the past

Goodness nose: (clockwise) old books, a pub, mouldy bread, and Paris in the summer.

Should there be museums for smells? As our lives are lived ever more online and our environment changes, some think it has never been more important to preserve culturally important aromas.

Imagine going to an enormous museum – the biggest in the world.

It has a huge queue of excited visitors along the street in front of it; many steps up to its imposing door and, once you get inside, absolutely nothing!

Nothing to see, that is. Open your nostrils and it’s a different story.

Moving through the galleries, you travel through time – from the smell of a feast in Ancient Rome to a 21st-Century brunch in New York, on to the pong of a Victorian street, to the stink of a WW1 trench.

This museum doesn’t exist – but could it?

Researcher Cecilia Bembibre believes that historians have ignored smells for too long. They are an essential part of humanity’s cultural heritage, she argues: part of what makes places and times unique.

Using cutting-edge techniques, she captures the scent of historic objects, such as old books in the library of St Paul’s Cathedral. She then works out the different chemicals that go into making that scent in order to write a ‘recipe’ for reproducing it.

The Unesco list of intangible cultural heritage already includes activities that relate to smell, such as perfume-making in southern France, and festivals in Spain and Columbia. Why shouldn’t it include smells themselves?

The museum of smells doesn’t exist, for now.

But should it?

Nasal battle

A museum of smells would transform our understanding of the past and of the present, say some. Science shows how much smell affects our emotions – a museum of smells could even help us become more empathetic.

This is a boring and silly idea, think others. Smells are ephemeral – they are made to disappear, and we shouldn’t try and keep them. Reading historical documents and studying objects in the museums we already have is far more worthwhile.

You Decide

  1. If you had to pick one representative smell from today to share with someone 100 years in the future, what would it be?

Activities

  1. In small groups, pick a historical place and time, for example, a street in Victorian London. Make a list of the 10 strongest smells you think you would find there. Research to see if you are right, adding any you have missed. Make a poster to share your findings with the class.

Some People Say...

“Nothing revives the past so completely as a smell that was once associated with it.”

Vladimir Nabokov (1899-1977), Russian-American novelist and poet

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
That it is possible to preserve and recreate smells using chemistry and the expertise of professional perfume-makers. Bembibre’s research, so far, has focused on the smell of ancient books, old leather gloves and mould! We also know that people already value smells as part of a museum experience. Numerous museums, such as Jorvik Viking Centre in York and the Mary Rose Museum in Portsmouth, use scent to bring their exhibits to life.
What do we not know?
What the most important smells of our time might be! Deciding which smells are more important than others is a complicated job for historians, researchers and members of the public too. Is it more important to preserve smells relating to the lives of normal, working people, for example, or to the lives of the rich? What will tell people of the future more about the times we live in? And would people like a museum of smells alone?

Word Watch

Imposing
Grand and impressive-looking.
Heritage
Valued things from the past.
St Paul’s Cathedral
One of London’s most famous landmarks, designed by Sir Christopher Wren. This working church was the tallest building in London from 1710 to 1967.
Unesco
The United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation. Part of the UN, it seeks to build peace through international cooperation in education, the sciences and culture.
Intangible
Something you can’t actually touch.
Empathetic
To be able to feel or at least understand how others feel.
Ephemeral
Lasting for a very short time.
Empathetic.
kind and thoughtful about how others feel

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