Something Smells at the Museum

Image courtesy flickr user misteraitch

Smell is by far my favorite sense. I know it’s strange to have a favorite sense, but for me smells are an essential link to memories and people in my life. The smell of my grandmother’s perfume, the smell of the special dinner my mom used to make for my birthday, the smell of swimming pool chlorine: all these take me back to a place or time that has been entrenched in my memory. Because smell is so strongly linked to memory, public institutions like museums are starting to think of ways to incorporate smells into exhibitions to help make the experience more complete from a sensory point of view. Museums have been using colors and sounds in exhibitions for years; ambient sounds like street noise or period music add to historical scenes and houses, while dark complimentary colors like blue and red enhance the primary colors and gold leaf of medieval artworks.

The use of smells, however, is a relatively new development due to the difficulty of accurately reproducing historic scents. Unlike music and color, what something smelled like a hundred years ago was not written down or preserved, except in the rare case where a formula existed (as in the case with some perfumes). Natural history museums were the first group of museums to incorporate smells. The best example is found in the American Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Biodiversity, which recreates a 90-foot-long, 26-foot-wide section of the Dzanga-Sangha rainforest as a walk-through diorama incorporating video, sound, and smell to give the visitor the sense of complete immersion. History museums are beginning to experiment with smells in exhibitions, but they must tread carefully not to simply incorporate smells without thinking about context. A recent article in the Boston Globe highlights the issue of context using the example of wintergreen. In the U.S., wintergreen makes us think of toothpaste and chewing gum, while in the U.K. wintergreen would bring up memories of injured soldiers and medical ointments.

The issue here, as is the issue with most things in exhibition design, is context. Just because you can include all of these things – smells, sounds, video, etc – does that mean you should include them? Will the visitor understand why a gallery or area smells like a combination of cut grass, manure, and mud – or will they just know that it stinks and move on?

Rosie Cook is Registrar and Assistant Curator at CHF.

A Whiff of History [Boston Globe]
Episode 88: A Sense of Scent [Distillations]

Posted In: Education | History

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