This is heritage science…smell of heritage

From listening to furniture to smelling heritage. Cecilia Bembire introduces current research going on at University College London as part of a PhD project, in collaboration with The National Trust (heritage partner) and sensory experts Odournet (industry partner).

Smell of Heritage

Smell of Heritage logo

Smells are all around us; they are important because they affect the way we feel, think and behave. Research shows that for some people the smell of freshly cut grass brings memories of their childhood; the smell of rosemary makes us alert and focused, and a pleasant smell in a shop encourages us to spend more money. And yet, we know very little about what the past smelled like.

This project explores the connection between smells and heritage. It tries to understand how smells can be part of the identity of a space (for example, the familiar smell of books in a historic library) and how heritage science can help capture, analyse, reproduce and archive smells that it’s worth preserving, by acquiring information about the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that constitute the smells.

We are now investigating the smells of Knole House, a historic house in Kent, as part of a project developed within the Centre for Doctoral Training in Science and Engineering in Arts Heritage and Archaeology (SEAHA) at UCL.

Smell of Heritage 1
Sampling of VOCs from an early 20th century Ethiopian codex in the Heritage Science Lab at UCL

The aim of this project is to better understand how smells affect the way we look at our cultural heritage, and what we can do to preserve smells that we might want to share with future generations.

Smell of Heritage 2
Capturing VOCs at St Paul’s Cathedral Library

Who will benefit from this research?  People who enjoy visiting museums, galleries, libraries and historic houses, and everyone interested in touching, listening and smelling the past!

Heritage practitioners will gain an understanding about the value and nature of historic smells in properties and collections, and the possibilities for them to be used to engage the public. Industries such as tourism will benefit from identifying and understanding how smells can be part of the identity of certain places, and part of the reason people are attracted to those places.

To find out more email the project: of follow the project account on twitter: Smell of Heritage @ucqbbem

One thought on “This is heritage science…smell of heritage

  1. Joe LeClair April 8, 2016 / 10:42 pm

    Reminds me of a story I read on an archival listserv a number of years back…

    Someone was in the reading area of a small European archive that held older records. A gentleman sitting across the room would occasionally raise a document to his nose and inhale deeply. After several hours, the curiosity of the listserv writer took over and they inquired about the sniffing. The gentleman said that during periods of certain epidemics, correspondence coming out of disease ridden cities would be dipped in vinegar to disinfect it. By looking at the dates of the letter with a scent of vinegar on it he could tell when a plague had descended on the town.

    True or not, I don’t know. It is the internet… But as an archivist working in an increasingly digital world, it shows that scanning everything isn’t a perfect solution.

    Liked by 1 person

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