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  • Jingshu Helen Yao

Smell in Museums Around the World

By: Jingshu Helen Yao


With a new semester starting, I began several new courses. For Dr. Hooley McLaughlin’s Curating Science course, we were asked to keep a smell journal, a daily recording of odours and fragrances around us. While the idea of documenting scent is rather interesting, the assignment also made me realize that olfaction — sense of smell — might be underrated among all of our sensory organs. In school, we were often taught that human olfaction is inferior to many animals due to evolutionary reasons. Compared with vision, hearing, and touch, our ability to smell seems to be less salient. Though I imagine the loss of smell could bring potential problems to our daily lives, those problems seem less severe than the loss of sight or hearing. However, during my research for the smell journal, I came across many recent studies that suggested human olfaction is much more powerful than previously thought and in some cases even compatible with that of dogs. This discovery made me interested in how smells and our abilities to smell are presented in the museums, from both scientific and nonscientific angles.

Visitors sniffing scent sample at museum. Getty Image.

The most recent news about "smell museums" is surrounding the creation of Odeuropa. The project aims to research smell in the context of both human biology and computer science. In November 2020, Odeuropa received a $3.4 million grant from European Union as a part of the Horizon 2020 Programme. The project will make use of AI to research the documentation of smell between the 16th and 20th century. Their mission is to create an online museum of smell and preserve the olfactory heritage of Europe.

Odeuropa Historical Smell Project. Yahoo News.

In Search of Lost Scents” is an exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam in the Netherlands. It is the PhD project of Caro Verbeek, whose primary interest is to study the use of smell as a medium of art, especially among futurists and surrealists. The exhibition features smell in historical arts, which were distributed to visitors by facilitators on strips of test paper. A scentman, the artist who uses smell as the method of artistic expression, also performed on site. It was an eye-opening experience for the visitors and an interesting application of Verbeek’s study.

Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam. Getty Image.

Other than treating smell as an object, it can also be used as a tool to create a more accessible museum space. In “Seeing by Smelling,” Caro Verbeek explains the ways in which smell, touch, and storytelling could facilitate the interpretation of visual art for low sighted people. For example, the smell of myrrh was added to the exhibition of the 'Adoration of the Magi' painting. Myrrh is not only an element presented in the painting, offered to Jesus by the three kings, it was also burnt in ritual to honor kings and gods. Adding the smell to the storytelling allows visually impaired participants to establish a connection to the artwork. Even for visitors who have no visual accessibility needs, the element of smell created a multi-sensory experience. Verbeek quoted neuro-scientist Richard Stevenson who says “scents are known to elicit intense historical sensations... even more so than images or sounds.”


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