Scent can transport us. One whiff of, say, pine needles, might bring you right back to a snowshoeing adventure in the forests of Washington’s Cascade Mountains, or to a treasured Christmas morning. Smell is a powerful tool for experiencing the world around us, and as such, more so than any sense, it is inextricably linked to our memories.
So when the European Union put out a call to researchers to help museums enhance the impact of their digital collections, “We immediately thought: smell,” says Inger Leemans, a professor of cultural history at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam and the principal investigator for Odeuropa, an E.U.-funded research project aimed at showcasing the significance of olfactory heritage in European culture.
At its core, Odeuropa is an encyclopedia of smells. The online database pulls together the vast scent-related image and textual data of museums, universities and other heritage institutions, “to help people discover the olfactory cultures and vocabularies of the past,” says Leemans. This includes everything from disease-fighting perfumes to the stench of industrialization in historic literature and paintings.
When the project was first publicly announced in November 2020, the team described its plans to use artificial intelligence to identify and analyze references to smells from 16th- to early 20th-century Europe in historical texts and images. The aim, Leemans told the Independent at the time, was to “dive into digital heritage collections to discover key scents of Europe and bring them back to the nose.” Now, three years on, Odeuropa has officially launched its products—a Smell Explorer search engine, which offers insight into how the past smelled, as well as how people described, depicted and experienced those smells, and the Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage, with entries ranging from car interiors to coffeehouses. Odeuropa also hosted a one-day Smell Culture Fair in Amsterdam on November 28 to share the overall project’s final results.
Odeuropa’s team is made up of olfactory experts—some, according to Leemans, who’d already been developing A.I. technologies around heritage and food culture, others who were collaborating with museums and libraries to capture the smell of historical objects, and a few who’d been testing the waters of “olfactory storytelling,” bringing smells into museums through guided tours. Together, they’ve used A.I. technology to capture what Leemans calls “smell events,” or things like specific occasions, circumstances and places “described by historical nose witnesses.”
“This sort of leg work is really important for assisting other scholars, especially early career scholars or students, in searching for this sort of ephemeral evidence of the past,” says Evan Kutzler, a U.S. historian and the author of Living by Inches: The Smells, Sounds, Tastes, and Feeling of Captivity in Civil War Prisons. “It’s something that’s always there but can sometimes be hard to identify.”
Rather than tracing a smell from a chemical perspective, as a perfumer does when they describe a scent through top notes and base notes (e.g. the fragrance of rose, followed by a more long-lasting vanilla), Odeuropa maps smell as a “cultural phenomenon.” For example, gathering images and texts that relate to the smell of Futurism, an art movement originating from early 20th-century Italy that emphasized energy and movement, or mining the internet for content capturing the aromas of, say, France or the plague.
“We had many long conversations with our humanities and social science scholars,” says Leemans, “as well as with our chemical and perfume partners to make a model for smell moments that incorporate places, sentiments, attributes, etc.” Odeuropa then developed a web browser that could pull such details from approximately 23,000 images and 62,000 historic texts in seven different languages (including English, French and German), all which were available in the public domain. “When the project’s initial results came in,” says Leemans, “we were expecting gibberish or all kinds of non-smell-related quotes.” Instead, what they captured was over 2.5 million nose-witness accounts, such as one associating “odorous airs” with feelings of nostalgia and gratitude, and another alluding to the “insufferable” scent of a mid-19th-century Edinburgh apartment.
“Working on smell opens up whole new ways of thinking about the experience of time in the past and present,” says William Tullett, an Odeuropa team member and author of Smell in 18th-Century England. For instance, he says, the way we perceive the smell of garlic today might be entirely different from the ways people thought about it 200 years ago. “Different medical and cultural ideas led to odors having different meanings,” he says, “but we can learn a lot about the relationship between past and present by comparing those reactions.”
Odeuropa’s Smell Explorer and Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage are both publicly accessible, available to everyone from an aromatherapist who wants to learn ancient recipes to an armchair traveler who’s interested in the sometimes off-putting scent of canals in 19th-century Europe. To create the Smell Explorer tool, Odeuropa’s team manually annotated 5,000 images picturing objects associated with smells—like perfume bottles or a person holding their nose—and then essentially trained their search engine to recognize similar smell-related elements in other photos, expanding their overall database in the process. They then did the same with thousands of historical books, including travelogues, botanical textbooks and even sanitary reports, creating an automated system that could replicate the manual annotations by identifying things like smell-related emotions and characteristics (e.g. a “fragrant” bedroom or “putrid” algae) attributed to a particular place, object or event. Of the 550 or so smell sources, 115 fragrant spaces and 35 olfactory gestures (such as “diaper changing” and “bleaching”) showcased, some like “abstract,” “being” and “place” are a little less concrete than say, “forest fire” or “fish market.” “My guess,” says Kutzler, “is that when you’re just beginning to index a project like this, it makes sense to take as wide of an approach as possible.”
The Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage explores the stories behind approximately 120 scents. It’s arranged in two types of resources: Entries, which are Wikipedia-like descriptions written by experts in fields such as chemistry and the social sciences and structured under five key categories (Smells, Places, Practices, Feelings and Noses), each with its own data to explore, and Storylines, clickable stories of smell history that include a series of interlocking themes, taking readers on a deep delve into the smellscapes of the past. For example, click on the word “city” and you’re suddenly transported to Amsterdam’s Rozemarijnsteeg (Rosemary Street), where women once crafted wreaths of rosemary for upcoming funerals. A couple more clicks, and you’re reading about how clove-studded oranges once helped ward off the plague, and learning that Amsterdam’s oldest apothecary, Jacob Hooy, not only was filled with wonders and supposedly disease-fighting scents, but also is still open and operating today. “I especially enjoy these ‘Storylines’ portals into thinking like a sensory historian,” says Kutzler. “Together with the encyclopedia’s ‘Entries,’ they have the potential to open up access to sensory history and make it easier to really explore the kinds of sources that are out there.”
Odeuropa’s work comes at an ideal time, since over the last decade a growing number of museums, archives and other cultural institutions have begun incorporating olfactory storytelling into their exhibits. In autumn 2022, Philadelphia’s Penn Museum presented the first major U.S. exhibition by Berlin-based smell researcher and artist Sissel Tolaas, a series of 20 “immersive installations” that utilized smells such as excreted sweat and vanilla—the world’s favorite scent—as talking points for issues like anthropology and climate change. Then, this past March, the Smithsonian’s own Hirshhorn Museum led a special olfactory tour of the exhibition “Put It This Way: (Re)Visions of the Hirshhorn Collection.” For the event, artists and perfumistas (i.e., people who take fragrances quite seriously) Cianne Fragione and Renee Stout each paired a perfume from their own collections with six of the exhibition artworks. For example, Fragione picked Maison Margiela Replica Jazz Club, with its notes of pink pepper, rum and tobacco leaf, to accompany visual experimental artist Carolee Schneemann’s black-and-white photographic series Eye/Body 1963. “People want to connect with the works in ways that go beyond just the visual,” says Nancy Hirshbein, a Hirshhorn gallery guide who was in charge of the olfactory tour. “It’s fun for us to experience art in unexpected ways,” she says, and gain a deeper understanding of each piece in the process.
Along with presenting Odeuropa’s findings, the recent Smell Culture Fair offered hands-on training in topics like olfactory storytelling and working with scents in galleries, libraries, archives and museums. The project also consisted of a downloadable Olfactory Storytelling Toolkit, a how-to guide for incorporating smells into museums and other heritage institutions. “It’s great to see sensory historians working with museums and thinking about how we can create such experiences appropriately, ethnically and historically,” says Kutzler.
In turn, says Leemans, these organizations can “help us educate people in the here and now about the important role scents play in our lives.”