One woman’s fight to capture whiff of the past
Should there be museums for smells? As our lives move online and artificial intelligence takes over, 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.
In the future, this could be used to create a museum of smells that might otherwise be in danger of disappearing forever.
But would it be worth it?
Smell is the most powerful of all our five senses. The human nose can recognise one trillion different odours, most of which we don’t even have words to describe.
Unsurprisingly, then, smell has had a huge impact on culture.
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?
Smells may also help us, more than anything else, to connect with other humans – both dead and alive. The novelist Marcel Proust wrote about how “taste and smell alone” remain when all other memories fail.
Yet because smells leave no trace, they are easily overlooked. Unlike more traditional museum objects – things we can touch – we can’t just discover old smells lying around.
To be remembered, smells need to be experienced directly.
The museum of smells doesn’t exist – for now.
But should it?
A museum of smells would transform our understanding of the past and of the present, say some. As our environment changes ever more quickly and people spend more of their lives in an odourless, virtual world, we need to protect smells that may disappear, and explain why they matter. 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. Although a museum of smells might be interesting or funny, we wouldn’t learn very much from it. To learn from the past properly, we need to use sight and touch – reading historical documents and studying objects in the museums we already have.
- If you had to pick one representative smell from today to share with someone 100 years in the future, what would it be?
- Which is the most important sense: sight, touch, smell, taste or hearing?
- In small groups, pick a historical place and time, for example, a street in Victorian London. Make a list of the10 strongest smells you think you would find there. Research to check if you are right, adding any you have missed. Make a poster to share your findings with the class.
- Imagine you are the curator of a museum, telling the story of life in 2020 for people in the future. You can have five exhibits, one for each of the five senses. What would you choose and why? Take turns to present your ideas to the class. Vote to decide on the final five.
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?
- Grand and impressive-looking.
- 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.
- 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.
- Something you can’t actually touch.
- Marcel Proust
- French novelist (1871-1922).
- To be able to feel or at least understand how others feel.
- Lasting for a very short time.