- Why bother with smell?
- What you can do
- Event formats
- Researching it
- Case study
- What kind of smells can I use?
- Installing it
- Useful reading and resources
Things feel a little different in your venue after hours, as visitors start to arrive for your Lates event. Maybe the space has been re-organised. Perhaps you’re testing out more challenging programming than usual. We teamed up with Lizzie Ostrom aka Odette Toilette, who has hosted scent talks, tours and masterclasses with many museums and galleries, to share her recommendations about how you can make your events even more magical by using scent as part of your activities.
Whether it’s walking through a gallery after hours looking at Belle Epoque artworks while breathing in the scent of violets – one of THE most prominent smells of the late 19th century; looking at 1920s theatrical costume while sampling the perfumes from that era; or exploring Ancient Greek mythology through smell, I’ve worked with dozens of museums on scenting their events. Having organised and hosted so many varied evening experiences, I wanted to pass on some of the things I’ve learned along the way, hopefully giving you lots of achievable ideas and answering questions how, why, and where you can access scented stuff!
Why bother with smell?
We usually take in information with our eyes and ears, yet by using our noses we can encounter a museum in a totally different, refreshing way. This is particularly relevant for visitors with visual impairments: an olfactory approach can offer greater access.
Smell is about our perceptions and opinions. We each form emotional responses to different smells based on our formative experiences with them. Museums and galleries can harness the potential of smell for mediating between visitors’ own ideas and memories, and what’s on display at the venue.
Smell is sociable and interactive. Crack out some scents at an event, and people love sharing and talking about what they think of them. It cuts out the small talk, and even in a roomful of strangers each visiting on their own, people will often share moving memories that smells remind them of.
Smell is intangible: you don’t need a big budget production or lots of art direction to create a special experience. It’s all in the imagination.
What you can do
- ANIMATE YOUR COLLECTION. Smell brings a sense of immediacy and connection, meaning that you can bring your exhibits to life – perhaps objects that are usually stuck behind glass and hard to get out – giving people a more visceral take on them.
- ALTER PERCEPTIONS. If your venue is a gallery or you hold an art collection, smell can be used as an interpretative tool. With figurative artworks you could scent a scene, still life or a portrait. With abstract work, you can invite people to try two smells in front of the same painting to see what their eye is drawn to (colours/shapes/lines) and which scent they feel is more in tune with their response.
- INTERPRETATION. If you’re doing more in-depth events with groups, you could provide opportunities for them to make their own scents or fragranced products, with specialist support.
For an evening event, there are a few ways to get scent wafting around.
- A lecture or screening during which scents can be passed round – this helps to break up an otherwise passive experience
- Host a scented walking tour through an exhibition or gallery with small groups
- Masterclasses and workshops (good for making sessions)
- Leave people to explore on their own with everything they need, using scent as an alternative to the written tour guide. You could either have stations around the space, each with a different aroma. Or you could attach numbered scent strips to a printed programme using sticky dots. You could even spray a set of postcards with scent which people collect as they walk around your exhibits: make sure you use uncoated cardstock with a low odour.
If you’re hosting an event, for a 30 minute session I’d recommend introducing a maximum of four smells, while for an hour-long session you could go up to six. More than this might be a bit much.
The sense of smell needn’t just apply to museums with a subject matter directly related to scent, like the Petrie Museum with its rich collection of Ancient Egyptian perfume bottles and incense burners. Many cultural and heritage sites can find relevant smells, or ways of using smells to kick off conversation.
Your curators might not be experts in this but they can give you ideas and starting points to investigate. Or you could invite volunteers or youth panels to carry out research. Possible subject areas to investigate:
- The societal role of scent: fashion, status and power. What perfumes might have been worn in a particular era and by whom? What would they have smelt like?
- Ritual and religion: many faiths have a rich tradition of burning incense, or have ascribed particular symbolic meaning to their aromatics.
- Hygiene and medicine: from sanitation to smell and germ theory.
- Domestic uses of scent at home, whether in cooking or entertainment.
- Trade and conquest, in which aromatics can help tell the story of global movement and power.
- Botany and plants: potentially zooming in on particular examples that have relevance to your location.
- Gender, marketing and advertising. Fragrance advertisements, possibly more than any thing other, are selling a product that’s intangible, ephemeral and elusive. They often tap into all sorts of fads and topical concerns in order to make that perfume relevant for its audience.
- The smells associated with a place – no matter how unusual…
I teamed up with the Royal Observatory Greenwich for two events about the smell of outer space (this might sound a bit wacky, but there are precedents for this, including an installation from artists about the smell of the moon), one at a bar in London for an audience of 60 from my mailing list, and another at the Royal Institution for over 200 people.
Working with Marek Kukula, the observatory’s public astronomer, the plan was to bring the museum out to new audiences, as it can be difficult to host evening events on-site. The observatory is in the middle of a park and so outside of summer, access is problematic.
Incorporating NASA photography from the Royal Observatory’s temporary exhibition, Visions of the Universe, we offered the audience a few ways into the subject.
Looking at the chemical composition of some of the planets and interstellar bodies, we put together a list of molecules identified in space, from ethyl alcohol and acetone (nail polish remover) to hydrogen peroxide, acetic acid (vinegar), ammonia and (possibly) naphthalene, as used in mothballs.
We then found alternative materials that could be substituted for toxic or unavailable items. For example, dust clouds were recently found to be partly constituted of Ethyl Formate, which gives raspberries their flavour, but instead we used a perfumery material called raspberry ketone. Interestingly, about half our audience had selective anosmia with the ketone, which meant they couldn’t smell it – so we were able to have a secondary scientific dialogue about why that is. We also sourced Cassifix, a material used to give the scent of green blackberry bush in perfumery, to stand in for sulphurous gases.
We also shared Early Modern theories on the smell of the various planets or their influence on earthly smells. The 15th century astrologer Cornelius Agrippa theorised that Saturn had affinity with frankincense and odiferous roots whereas Venus was the planet of sweet perfumes, including coriander, musk and the resin labdanum.
Then we became more imaginative, getting people to smell a range of perfumes from a company called Nu_Be, each named after one of the elements of the Big Bang, from Carbon to Hydrogen. Of course Hydrogen is odourless, but having something to springboard off meant we generated all sorts of conversation about how we relate to a subject we can’t ever directly experience (unless we become astronauts), and the continued personification of the planets – how different are we from those early modern astronomers? How do we make sense and meaning out of our solar system?
For Marek and his team the events were a success for audience development, as they reached out to over 250 attendees who weren’t their customary visitors, precisely because they were able to make their exhibition portable and reach the audiences of other organisations.
Marek commented afterwards:
Astronomy is largely a visual science so finding ways to incorporate scent into our public engagement really made us rethink our approaches. In terms of outcomes, it made our core audiences sit up and appreciate the science in a very different way – thus deepening their engagement. Meanwhile it enabled us to attract new audiences who might never normally attend a science event, so it was great for widening participation too. Tremendous fun and very worthwhile.Marek Kukula
We also produced this podcast interview with astronomer Marek Kukula about scent.
What kind of smells can I use?
You don’t need to get your hands on specialist kit to start running events like this.
1. If collection objects can be handled, work with the innate smell of the exhibits. The Imperial War Museum North recently collaborated with The British Society of Perfumers to animate objects from the Second World War. One perfumer created a conceptual scent inspired by a piece of shrapnel, but the audience also got to pass round the material itself and everyone inevitably held it up to their noses.
I interviewed the archivist for a fashion exhibition of Isabella Blow’s clothes at Somerset House, who told me that as she was cataloguing she could smell a famous perfume called Fracas coming off the garments – a scent for which Isabella was known. So while we didn’t touch the pieces in our event, we could get hold of the Fracas.
2. It’s much easier than it used to be to get hold of aromatic raw materials – from essential oils to single molecules used in perfumery. This is particularly useful if you want to showcase aromatics used in historic recipes which played a part in material culture. Take a look at our sample risk assessment on how to do this safely.
3. You can also source perfume and scented household products, whether heritage brands of fragrance such as the English houses of Floris, Penhaligons and Yardley; soaps; or traditional cleaning products. These are particularly evocative for oral history, or exploring themes within living memory.
4. You can also bring in in everyday objects and smells, whether that’s spices from the supermarket, flowers or herbs. And even unusual kit like artists materials can have a provocative scent, such as turpentine, oil pastels and pigments. For more ideas, we recorded this podcast with a specialist in historic paint techniques who has been restoring the 18th century Gothic house Strawberry Hill, discussing the smells of his craft.
This will depend on your preferred set-up and budget, whether you’re thinking about a workshop or talk format, or if you’d prefer to install scents for attendees to discover in their own time through the evening.
- One easy way is to buy some porous card from an art shop or specialist scent sampling strips (see resources below), which you can dip or spray in liquid fragrance and dry. They can easily either be passed among visitors or given to them before they venture around the venue solo, and then either put in a recycling bin after the event or taken home.
- You can fragrance cotton wool or another porous material and keep it in a box with a hole cut in for smelling. This avoids people having any direct contact with the material. These can be installed among displays, or passed around for an event.
- If your organization has a higher budget and would like to use ambient smells, you can use specialist diffusers for scenting areas of space from 8 square metres to 50 square metres or more. To deliver return on investment these work best for ongoing exhibits, though it is possible to run them for a single event.
The image below shows an installation I helped to mount for Tate Sensorium, which invited gallery visitors to experience paintings from the Tate’s collection using all their senses. Some paintings had multiple fragrances to try while looking.
Useful reading and resources
We’ve prepared this downloadable 2 page Health and Safety resource to go through when preparing to run your scent-themed event.
There is also a growing body of literature on scent, and a community of global practitioners using olfaction in a museums and heritage context.
@katemclean: works on urban smellscapes/smell mapping and hosts smell walks around towns and cities
@ucqbbem: London-based researcher looking at smell as part of heritage
The Language of Flowers: a Miscellany by Kirkby, Mandy, Diffenbaugh, Vanessa Published by Macmillan (2011) How to talk through a bunch of blooms. This book recaps the Victorian art of ascribing messages and symbolism to different flowers.
Essence and Alchemy: A Book of Perfume by Mandy Aftel. Great on the origins of scent and its use in various cultures.
The Ephemeral History of Perfume: Scent and Sense in Early Modern England by Holly Dugan. Really handy example of thinking broadly about smell and how it touches various aspects of everyday life.
Perfume: A Century of Scents by Lizzie Ostrom. My book! The story of the 20th century told via a hundred perfumes that spoke of their time.
The Smell Culture Reader (Sensory Formations) by Jim Drobnick. Critical theory on the role of smell.
Melanie McBride runs Smell Lab which develops DIY learning with smell:
The Library of Fragrance: used by lots of performance companies to source unusual smells in spray bottles.
Baldwins: useful online shop for sourcing raw materials including dried herbs, gums, resins, essential oils and incense.
Scent Strips: online shop for ordering smelling strips.