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Aromatic New Museum Celebrates the Art and History of Perfume

From the ancient Egyptians to Elizabeth Taylor, the Grand Musée du Parfum tells the story of fragrance

(Grand Musée du Parfum)
smithsonian.com

Many museums have a pretty pungent combo of smells, including formaldehyde, dust and pretzels at the snack bar. That’s usually unintentional, but the Grand Musée du Parfum in Paris is very conscious of the scents it gives off, and in fact the museum uses them to tell the story of perfume.

According to a press release, the museum, which opened in December, celebrates the history and impact of the fragrance industry—a symbol of French culture and one of the country’s top ten exports. The 15,000-square-foot museum is housed in a mansion at 73 rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré in the city’s 8th arrondissement, which is the heart of Parisian luxury brands.

Nadja Sayej at Harper’s Bazaar reports that the museum begins with “Perfume Stories and Histories,” dousing visitors in the legends of the perfume world, including Cleopatra, who reportedly splashed the sails of her royal ship with her personal scent to impress people on shore, and Catherine de’Medici, who is credited with bringing perfume to France.

The museum also includes a hall of fame, displaying more than 50 of the world's most influential perfumes, as well as an exhibit called “The Art of the Perfumer,” which shows how scents are created, and includes a partial reconstruction of the 1775 perfume lab used by Marie Antoinette’s scent master Houbigant. 

Hannah Meltzer at The Telegraph reports on one of the museum's more suggestive features: the “Seducers' Gallery.” It celebrates perfume's ability to stir the libido and includes displays ranging from Louis XIV to Elizabeth Taylor, and features an ode to more risqué scents including a button that sprays the scent of cannabis, absinthe and, reportedly, the boudoir.

The stars of the museum are, of course, its historic scents and the perfume ingredients available for visitors to sample, including spicy-sweet kyphi used by the ancient Egyptians and considered one of the first perfumes in the world, not to mention the Tonkin musk, the first eau de cologne invented by Jean-Marie Farina in 1695.

But the museum doesn't forget about the everyday olfactory triggers, either. In “Garden of Scents," Sayej writes, Alice-in-Wonderland-style artificial flowers spritz visitors with sometimes overlooked scents from everyday life, including chimney smoke, cinnamon, basil, and the sea. 

Fragrance is a ripe topic to explore, and the Grand Musée du Parfum isn't the only museum to tackle it. On April Fools' Day this year, the Smithsonian's National Museum of American History joked it was starting an #AmericanSmells project to document "rural and urban scent-rich historical objects." But then the museum followed up the prank with some real history— a research section on historical perfumes that shares perfumes were actually one of the first cosmetic products to be carried by American pharmacies.

Meltzer reports that the privately owned Grand Musée du Parfum, which cost $7 million to build, is seeking to send out an attractive enough scent to attract 300,000 visitors in its first year.

About Jason Daley

Jason Daley is a Madison, Wisconsin-based writer specializing in natural history, science, travel, and the environment. His work has appeared in Discover, Popular Science, Outside, Men’s Journal, and other magazines.

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