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The smell of success: how scent became the must-have interpretative tool

After visiting a multi-sensory experience at Chiswick House, Rachel Mackay explores how museums and heritage sites have used scent to create immersive visitor experiences

In the beautifully lit interior of Chiswick House (pictured, top), cellist Rebecca Knight paused in her playing and put her hand to her nose. It was a pre-arranged sign for the audience at the heritage attraction; a signal that we should open the first of three cellophane envelopes we had been handed on arrival.

I pulled out the first scented stick and inhaled. The smell of green moss and wet winters mingled with the cello music to transport me to the 18th-century gardens of the house.

Before her performance, Knight had asked us to imagine being at a party during the heyday of Chiswick House and then slipping away from the hustle and bustle of the Baroque interiors to find fresh air and solace in the winter woodland.

To my surprise, as I usually cringe at role-play of any kind, my mind did exactly that. I was attending Winter Notes, a multi-sensory event at Chiswick House that used scent and performance to engage our senses. And despite my usual cynicism at being asked to use my imagination in any way, something about the combination of the music and scent was affecting me in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

Scent in museums

The use of scent in museum and heritage settings is nothing new. Since the turn of the century, the use of smell in attractions has increased dramatically as our understanding of and appreciation for sensory engagement has grown. Of all the senses, smell is the one most linked to emotion and memory; being connected directly to the limbic system in our brains. This gives scent enormous power and explains its explosion into the museum and heritage world.

At Winter Notes, we experienced three performances and scent pairings. Each one used scent to engage the audience in slightly different ways. The event gave an insight into the range of applications for olfactory work in museum settings.

Smell evokes a sense of place and time

That first, mossy, outdoor scent, along with the baroque-inspired music invoked a specific time and place linked with the heritage of Chiswick House. It encouraged us to imagine what life had been like there during a bygone era. And it did so in a more visceral, immersive way than could have been accomplished by a tour, by static interpretation, or even performance alone.

Many attractions have used scent in this way. I used Twitter to ask people what their favourite use of scent was in museums and heritage sites.

Last of the Vikings Jorvik
Jorvik Viking Centre

According to my respondents (and indeed to me), the Jorvik Viking Centre in York rates highly as a good use of scent. In this scenario, smell conveys an atmosphere none of us have ever experienced: the York of over 1000 years ago. As the visitor travels through a recreation of Jorvik, they experience the smells of a Viking settlement; both foul and fragrant.

Enriching knowledge

In a 2017 research study by Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlic, the authors discuss the use of scent in this way, saying: “In the heritage context, experiencing what the world smelled like in the past enriches our knowledge of it, and, because of the unique relation between odours and memories, allows us to engage with our history in a more emotional way.”

A good example of this can be seen in one of the replies to my query. Twitter user Kevin McGinley commented: “I can still smell @JorvikViking from when I was 11 years old so they must have done something right.”

For McGinley, and many others, the use of scent in the museum had created an emotional memory that still resonates today.

Other Twitter responses highlighted the sensory experience below deck at HMS Victory, the smell of the “stourie” (“dusty” in Scots) jute at heritage mill Verdant Works and Dennis Severs’ House in East London, which uses a variety of scents to invoke the history of the 18th-century house and trace the rise and fall of the fictional Jervis family.

Nice & nasty smells

Sometimes, the museum scent experience isn’t necessarily pleasant. For example, Twitter user Penny Horsfield commented:

“We once went to a WWI museum in Diksmuide in Belgium. Their smell experience included chlorine gas and corpses. An experience I’m happy not to repeat although the museum itself was excellent.”

In 2008, the Reg Vardy Gallery in Sunderland staged an exhibition where, rather than using scent to enhance a heritage experience consisting of objects and displays, the smells had to stand up for themselves. Presented in a bare, white gallery, the 13 smells invoked lost times and places through scents relating to extinct plants, Cleopatra’s hair and even communism.

Curator Robert Blackson said the scents were “inspired by absence. Their forms are drawn by the disparate stories throughout history for which few, if any, objects remain.”

Smells connect us to others

In their research study, Bembibre and Strlic state:

“In addition to engaging the visitors to rethink the past as an odorous place, smells in museums can be a way of relating to the world of the ‘other’.”

This doesn’t necessarily need to relate to the past. Our second performance at Chiswick House aimed to inspire contemporary connection. It presented scents that seemed to be familiar but then used poetry to ascribe new and unfamiliar meanings.

Scottish Pakistani poet Sunnah Khan performed two pieces, both relating to her experience as a second-generation immigrant in Glasgow. In her works, she explored how she and her relatives have navigated their dual cultural heritage and their memories of Pakistan.

The scents filling the room for this performance were cloves, cinnamon and juniper. As our host Tasha Marks from AVM Curiosities explained, these scents are familiar to many of us. They evoke Christmas, and the festive hearth and home. However, they are of course also exotic spices and can evoke different meanings and memories across the globe.

Through a mix of these familiar scents and Khan’s poetry, I felt I had a more emotional window into someone else’s experience; one where spices evoke memories of a homeland left behind rather than the festive season. And yet, there was a common experience too: at the heart of both interpretations were themes of home and family.

Making connections with museum scents

This year, a new exhibition at Mauritshuis, in The Hague, also used smell to explore international connections. This uses scent dispensers to allow visitors to experience smells associated with the paintings on display. Smell the Art also “touches on how increasing trade with—and exploitation of—people in other parts of the world led to the arrival of new aromas”.

George III's bath Kew Palace museum scents
King George III’s bath at the Royal Kitchens at Kew. Image: Historic Royal Palaces.

Scent can also connect visitors to the viewpoints of historical figures. At Kew Palace, we place lavender from our Kitchen Garden in the room where King George III would have taken his medically prescribed baths.

This gives an authentic experience, as lavender from Kew would almost certainly have been used in preparing his baths. The scent also helps visitors imagine the mindset of the King as he tried to find a moment of relief and calm during his periods of mental and physical ill-health.

Smells affect our mood

It is well documented that certain scents have the ability to impact our mood. Bembibre and Strlic cite examples from the retail sector that show “a pleasant scent positively impacts customers’ attitude towards the store, the evaluation of products and intention to revisit the place.”

And of course, anyone who has been for a massage or experienced aromatherapy can attest to the effect of different scents on mood, mindset and even physical health.

The heritage sector can also use this motivation to impact mood. The third and final performance at Chiswick House paired a performance by urban-jazz singer Ruby Confue with frankincense, lavender and sage. The artist had requested scents that could promote introspection and inner growth as the best accompaniment to the themes of her music. 

In this performance, smell was being used not to evoke a time or place, or connect us to others, but to connect us to ourselves by inspiring a calm, contemplative mindset.

Exploring history

The National Museum of Singapore used smell to influence the mood of visitors during SINGAPURA 700, a 2015 exhibition that traced the history of the island through smell. Working with Je t’aime Perfumery, the Museum presented scents to “explore the dormant mood of different eras”.

National Museum, Singapore museum scents
The National Museum of Singapore

As their press release stated:

“If you have ever wondered about what it must feel like to live in a particular era in Singapore, you can now experience it at the National Museum”.

This museum exhibition used scents to convey different emotions, and reflect how people might have felt at different points in Singapore’s history. These emotions can be positive or negative, as Prachi Garg from Je t’aime Perfumery describes:

“I look forward to seeing people’s reaction when they smell fear. Even when we were designing it, some team members were affected to the extent that our discussion escalated to an argument. But as soon as we moved to next pleasant smell, everyone was relaxed again.”

New experiments in heritage smells

The recent exploration of heritage smells has inspired many to reconsider how smells fit as part of our cultural heritage. In their study, researchers Bembibre and Strlic argue for smell to be considered part of our intangible cultural heritage, protected and promoted by bodies like UNESCO, in the same way that music, performance or craft is today.

Researchers Bembibre and Strlic argue for smell to be considered part of our intangible cultural heritage, protected and promoted by bodies like UNESCO

An example of this would be the skill and practice of perfume-making in the Grasse region of France. This has been handed down over many generations. In 2018, UNESCO formally recognised such practices as intangible cultural heritage.

This recognition of smell is yet to be widespread. However, the increase in conversations around this area shows that it is becoming more recognised as a part of our cultural heritage. Therefore, the importance of this method of engagement with museum and heritage visitors is only likely to increase. 

Engaging with scent at museums and beyond

Outside of the academic world, external circumstances are also inspiring new ways for attractions to engage with scent. Bea Mitchell recently wrote for blooloop about the Dungeons creating ‘smell at home’ products. These were “for visitors missing the Blackpool Tower Dungeon, Edinburgh Dungeon and York Dungeon during COVID-19”. 

At-home scents included ‘Torture Chamber’ and ‘Castle Ghosts’.

AromaPrime dungeons museum scents

We are also seeing more commercial partnerships, such as the Floral Street collaboration with the Van Gogh Museum, where commercial perfume and scent companies are taking inspiration from museum collections and spaces.

Although lockdown might have hastened some new innovations in the smell arena, it also brings drawbacks. Following the announcement of the return to mask-wearing on museum spaces, the same day of the Winter Notes event, Chiswick House head of visitor experience, Daniel Feeney, took to Twitter to lament the difficulty of trying to plan a scent-based experience during a pandemic.

However, on the night, smell found a way. The aromas were distinct even to the masked audience. Also, I personally found my mask a very effective perfumed stick holder! 

So, it seems, as our understanding of olfactory engagement increases, innovation in museums and galleries is finding new ways to create emotional and immersive experiences using scent. Even when barriers present themselves!

Experimenting with scent at museums

Finally, if you too want to experiment with scent in your attraction, I recommend this excellent guide: Odette Toilette’s Guide for Museums. It advises on methods of using smell, gives ideas for different presentations, and contains useful health and safety information.

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

As the author of the guide says:

“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.”

So, inspire the imagination of your audience, and explore the many possibilities of scent to evoke time and place, connect us with others and even improve moods!

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Rachel Mackay

Rachel Mackay manages Historic Royal Palaces at Kew, looking after four historic sites including Kew Palace. In 2020, she created The Recovery Room (therecoveryroomblog.com) to share research and resources as the museum sector recovers from the impact of the pandemic. She was recently named one of Blooloop’s top 50 museum influencers.

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