The Smelly Museum?

For my Museums and Digital Technology class, not only are we meant to keep our own blogs but we are also encouraged to read our classmates posts. I follow some of my classmates on their various blog formats and therefore I received an email saying that Erica Daudelin had updated her blog and I went to go and read it. Erica’s post this week discusses Augmented Reality at the Royal Ontario Museum, which is really cool and you should go and read about it here. Erica’s post got me thinking, however, about what else is out that that could be beneficial to a museum visit that enables visitors to contextualize works better.


More often than not, when I go to a museum I have this incredible urge to touch everything and that goes against all my years of museum visits and what I continually preached as a museum docent over the summer. Perhaps that’s my desire to know more about objects that are so heavily protected I can’t even see the finer details of the object. There is so much to learn about an object that cannot be understood from a distance and requires closer contact. It is one thing to look at an object and read what its purpose was but it is another entirely to hold an object, feel its weight, or even smell it.


Smell is something that isn’t really thought about during a museum visit but smell is so important to memory making and contextualization. I know that every time I walk by someone smoking a cigar, or I smell some butterscotch, I immediately think back to my grandfather’s old house, a place I haven’t been in fifteen years. Now think about the last time you were in a museum, was there any smell that connected you to a different time or place? The answer is most likely no, and that is because most of the objects are sitting behind glass cases. Modern museums are built to preserve the objects they house, and more often than not, they remove objects from their original context in the name of that preservation/conservation.


But what if someone could harness the smell of objects, preserve them, and make them reproducible in order to create a truer interaction with those objects?  Scientists such as Cecilia Bembibre at University College London are working on cataloging object smells. An online article from Atlas Obscura posted earlier this month discusses Bembibre’s work with preserving smells of “historic locations and objects around England.” The article explains just how Bembibre goes about collecting her smell samples and then runs them through both “a gas chromatographer and mass spectrometer, which [Bembibre] describes as a ‘big nose.’”  These two machines enable Bembibre to have a recipe of sorts for recreating the smell in the future.


While there is much about smells that is subjective, this could offer a wonderful opportunity to museums or historic sites. Being able to recreate an exact smell of an object and allow visitors to smell it while still keeping the original artifact safe could offer a new dimension to the standard museum visit. This technology could potentially also offer visitors the chance to connect on a personal level to an object in new ways. There are so many possibilities for this technology in the future, I just hope someone tries to take advantage of it.

One thought on “The Smelly Museum?”

  1. Great queries into a little-researched area of museum collections management! Smell is a very strong memory trigger for me, as I have heard it is for most people. Imagine if the immersive environments in museums were not only filled with native sounds, but native smells as well…a replica bakery that smelled like bread. A replica of a clothing factory that smelled of the cloth, the people, and the dust collecting inside it. A prehistoric diorama that smelled of the plants and animals inhabiting it…all audiences would delight in the experience, surely.

    Temperature specific galleries are a fascination of mine as well. Ever since riding the ‘how the chocolate gets made’ ride at Hershey Park as a child and traveling inside my little trolley car through the chocolate baking oven that I thought would surely roast me alive, I’ve felt the power of temperature control as a form of interactive. With both smell and temperature features, the most obvious benefit is the impact – every visitor will notice it, and many will likely remember it, even though none of them consciously or actively chose to interact with it.

    Evaluation studies on both these emerging technologies would be fascinating!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s