Monday, July 01, 2024

A Fragrant Journey Through Time: The World's First Library of Heritage Smells


At the National Museum in Kraków, history is not just seen and heard – it is also smelled. Imagine stepping into a museum and being enveloped by the scent of an old painting or catching a whiff of a poet's snuffbox from centuries ago. This is now a reality, thanks to the world’s first "library of heritage smells."

Capturing the Scent of History

The National Museum in Kraków has launched an innovative project named Odotheka, which uses scientific methods to capture and reproduce the scents associated with historical objects. This pioneering initiative is in collaboration with the National Museum of Slovenia in Ljubljana and aims to archive the smells of heritage items, including masterpieces by famous Polish painters and a national poet's snuffbox from Slovenia.

The first fragrance created as part of this project was extracted from Leonardo da Vinci’s renowned painting, "Lady with an Ermine." This beloved artwork, painted between 1489 and 1491, exudes the rich scent of walnut panels, paint, and varnish. The meticulous process of scent extraction took nine months, during which scientists collected and analyzed the scent compounds using advanced laboratory equipment and their keen sense of smell.

Elżbieta Zygier, the chief curator of the National Museum in Kraków, emphasizes the importance of this sensory dimension: “The use of multiple senses makes the exhibition very attractive. Scent certainly also influences the emotions of visitors.” Indeed, the ability to smell these historical scents adds a new layer of engagement and accessibility, especially for visually impaired visitors.

A Library of Knowledge and Scent

The Odotheka project is not just about recreating smells but preserving them for future generations. Tomasz Sawoszczuk, who coordinates the research part of the project at the Kraków University of Economics, explains, “It will be a library of knowledge about the scent of a given heritage object, taking into account the historical context. We will learn what chemical compounds need to be mixed to obtain a particular odour.”

In total, ten objects will have their scents archived, including works by Polish artists Stanisław Wyspiański, Olga Boznańska, and Alina Szapocznikow. Each fragrance captures a piece of history, offering a sensory connection to the past that goes beyond visual appreciation.

The Pioneers of Heritage Smell Preservation

The Odotheka project is part of a broader European initiative led by Odeuropa, a group dedicated to the study and preservation of olfactory heritage. Odeuropa's mission is to identify, preserve, and promote the importance of scents in our cultural heritage. Through interdisciplinary research, they aim to highlight how smells contribute to our understanding of history and cultural identity.

A Global Trend: Scent in Cultural Heritage

This novel approach to preserving heritage through scent is part of a growing global trend. In Germany, scents are being used to enhance travel experiences, making them more immersive. According to a National Geographic article, these olfactory experiences can transport travelers back in time, enriching their understanding and memory of a place. The sense of smell, being closely linked to memory, can evoke vivid recollections and emotional responses, making the past feel tangible and alive.

Similarly, in India, an article on characterization of the smell of bustling cities like Mumbai, Delhi, Bangalore, Calcutta, and Chennai was published on the Vice portal. These cities are characterized by their distinct scents, from the spices of street markets to the earthy smell of monsoon rains. India, with its incredible diversity and rich cultural heritage, stands to benefit greatly from such an initiative. Preserving these olfactory elements would help maintain a sensory connection to its history and vibrant present, offering a multi-sensory exploration of India's legacy.

The Future of Olfactory Heritage

The preservation of olfactory heritage opens new avenues for experiencing and understanding history. By engaging multiple senses, museums and cultural institutions can offer more immersive and inclusive experiences. The initiative taken by National Museum in Kraków is a pioneering step in this direction, setting a precedent for how we can connect with our past in deeper, more meaningful ways.

As visitors to the museum catch the scent of da Vinci's masterpiece or the snuffbox of a Slovenian poet, they are not just observing history; they are creating a distinct memory of this experience, allowing the fragrances to transport them through time. This innovative blend of art, science, and sensory experience ensures that the essence of history is preserved and appreciated in all its richness.

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