Smelling the Past

Mrs. Louise (S.L.); Courtesy Forsyth County Public Library Photograph Division

Mrs. Louise (S.L.) Pinkston with a smelling salts container, 1956; Courtesy of the Forsyth County Public Library Photograph Collection

Would scents help the past come alive in new ways for your site’s audience? Several museums around the world have experimented with this technique. Exhibitions usually rely on the visual sense to convey information, but sound is also a common means of setting the scene. Touch, taste, and smell are usually trickier senses to engage, especially given the preservation concerns involved in the display of artifacts.

Last fall the California College of Art installed a scent-only exhibition, entitled “An Olfactory Archive: 1738-1969.” The groundbreaking show experimented with scent as a method of propelling imaginations into the past.  To see the installation and snapshots of audience participation, view the show’s flicker page here:

The business of simulating and stimulating scent is growing, with many marketing studies connecting scent to memory, emotion, and ultimately increasing consumer desire. Shouldn’t history institutions tap into the nose’s potential to intensify engagement? Overtime the topic of enhancing exhibit ambience with scent has come up on museum-related listservs. Several historic house staffers have reported using scent diffusers, which work with essential oils to generate ambient scents. This method can replicate cooking smells in places where there is no active living history kitchen demonstration.

Exhibit designer Larry Fisher, however, has warned against the use of liquid scents. He has cited spillage, evaporation, and residue contamination as potential problems. Instead, he recommends scents that use dry media for delivery. Fisher’s reference for this kind of product is Lorane Wasserman, Essential Resources, Torrance, CA, (310)534-3481 “Lorane has a standard line of scents and she is miraculous at creating virtually any scent you can, or cannot, imagine. Her ‘scent orbs’ are a dry media form of delivery.” Fisher notes that the beads can be used with special devices for larger spaces or delivery on cue.

One leader in the field of dry delivery methods for synthetic scents is in our own state. The corporate headquarters for the international company, ScentAir, are in Charlotte. Among the firm’s most notable clients is a British Science museum. Exhibit designers wanted to include a cordite scent for their programs commemorating the 40th anniversary of lunar landings, since multiple astronauts had reported smelling gunpowder while on the moon.

Are there any scents that are naturally generated within your institution that visitors have commented on? Have you tried using smell as a way to engage audiences at your site? If so, are there methods you can recommend to other readers?



About collectionsconversations

This blog will contain posts from the C2C project staff on a variety of topics related to collections care and disaster preparedness. Enjoy the posts and let us know if you would like additional information or have a topic you would like for us to address.

Posted on April 8, 2014, in Exhibitions, historic houses, historic sites, museums and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.

  1. When we had our 19th century southern cooking display up we used apple cinnamon scented air fresheners (renuzit) to simulate the (pleasant) scent of a kitchen. It was an interesting addition to provide on a tight budget (each one was $1 at the dollar store) and we hid them behind our display boards. Our special exhibit space is very open so the scent didn’t stay around for more than a couple of weeks.

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