Thursday, 2 February 2017

SCENTS AND SENSIBILITY

MUSEUM INNOVATIONS

BY CASSY KIST

Museums have always been seeking new and interesting ways to tell history and stories. Whether that be through interactive digital components, images, objects, audio etc. - the list is endless. But lately I have been reading about multi-sensory exploration and how to some, especially curators touching is vital to understand and appreciate an object. However, another sense beyond hearing, seeing and touching has also been explored in museums and art pieces. Scents and smell have the potential to create not only excitement and intrigue, but also facilitate new forms of interpretation within museums. Scents tends to be excluded in history narratives and documented events, yet they are important details with the capacity to reveal aspects of time, space and context. If you recall a memory, maybe even walking down Bloor street, a multitude of smells will assault your conscious - maybe Chinese food, coffee or smoke; all these reveal something about the modern day Toronto city context.




Some Historians argue that scents even vanishing ones, are a pivotal part of history and should be preserved. Does that mean we should try to preserve the smell of the modern day theatre? Shopping mall or god forbid gym? Perhaps! While some scents might be unappealing they can reveal details related to time and place and thus, help narrate the tale of everyday life.

An after hours culture festival in the UK (Culture 24), encourages British museums to use scents at their events and in their exhibit spaces, allowing visitors to interact with museum objects in new and unique ways. According to Culture 24, you can animate collections with scent, alter perceptions and create opportunities for new interpretation. Furthermore, scents also create imagery, influence emotions and when shared between people, create connections and discussions.

But how can museums use or reconstruct scents to tell the tales of a historic past through exhibits and objects?

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One can look to the National Museum of Singapore for inspiration. The museum hired a perfume artist to create different scents that would bring to life their 700 Years exhibit by creating connections between visitors, the objects and their context pertaining to segments of Singapore’s history. Each era within the exhibit was complimented and encapsulated by 12 scents; one of these, a scent called Fear was fabricated out of musk and ammonia for the era representing Japanese occupation during WW2. Other scents such as the 8 Cent Meal, was created to represent the meals that social welfare departments handed out during the post-war years. This scent included passion fruit, coconut milk and vanilla beans; ingredients which the perfume artist researched in collaboration with the museum over 4-5 months.


Within the 700 years exhibit. Source

This added exhibit detail may cause complications if museums are to become serious in not only using scents but creating them. For example, what scents do curators use to enliven an exhibit and how do they decide which scent combinations will be an accurate representation? Staff may need to research the period, event or person they are representing and decide what scents will work to the advantage of the exhibit themes. Simple raw ingredients like cinnamon or musk might suffice or if representing a complex olfactory context, say perhaps an Egyptian ritual, one can consult an olfactory historian.

A what??? 

Olfactory historians are scholars who have researched scents that have been documented or referenced to over the past centuries. On the other hand, if wanting to compliment a display of Egyptian scent bottles, a curator may decide to use a 3,500-year-old perfume once worn by Pharaoh Hatshepsut and reconstructed by scientists and archaeologists.
At the end of the day no matter the research or choices that the curators make, visitor interpretation is always subjective. That being said, even if a scent doesn’t completely convey the curator’s intention, they can still connect people, place and things, bringing collections and narratives to life.

Of course with every new interaction there is always potential risks, such as how scents can affect objects and if they could cause collections to become inaccessible to people allergic to scents. Some scents might be naturally repugnant to some and interpretations of scents in relation to objects may distract from the exhibit themes.


Morrison smelling books (Source).
On the other hand there are people who are firm believers in the power of scent and their ability to not only entice reflection and discussion, but also give satisfaction. Ask Rachael Morrison who spent 3 years smelling books in the MoMA library as an art piece.

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