I Wish I Had That Kind Of Time

I Wish I Had That Kind Of Time December 15, 2020

This is a long and sort of interesting article about efforts to recover what the past smelled like. At first glance, it seems a rather decadent enterprise–something called “Odeuropa” which will  be pretty expensive:

Launching this January, it is a $3.3 million, three-year, multinational project on the collection and recreation of smells in 16th- to early 20th-century Europe that will marry historical and literary analysis with machine learning and chemistry. The project is pioneering and also, in a year of COVID-19 induced anosmia with sensory-deprived lockdowns, timely. We became aware of our need for environmental stimulation—and the undervalued power of smell.

…especially as it seems like no one is quite sure how it will all turn out. Will it culminate in a museum of smells? Apparently, that is a real possibility:

How to design a museum of scents? Part of the answer already exists. Mandy Aftel, a natural perfumer and author of the 2014 book Fragrant, curates in Berkeley, California, a library of curious scents. The New York Times said the place “manages to contain the olfactory history of the world: hundreds of natural essences, raw ingredients and antique tinctures gathered from every corner of the globe, and all available for visitors to smell.”

On the other hand, thinking about this sort of thing has already been more helpful than just the birth of another cool museum:

Such research helps uncover and evaluate the impact of the world’s changing materiality on society. Fish or meat markets and olfactorily rich gardens have vanished (when have you last experienced a rose that actually carries a deep rose smell?). They made way for shops selling electronics and bubble tea. Smells present sensory witnesses of the materials in our environment. Policies often originate in these environmental signals instead of abstract societal models. You may have escaped some stinks of the past, but you are benefitting from their consequences. For example, according to the historian Melanie Kiechle, fears of industrial fumes and stench in late 19th-century America prompted countermeasures. One was creating a green lung at the heart of a densely populated metropolis—marking Central Park’s birth in Manhattan.


Our biosphere is in flux, too, and with it the richness of our sensory heritage. Consider the challenge of climate change with a diminishing species diversity (flowers and many other organic life forms). Smells, once lost, are impossible to recover—unless we try to preserve them.

And finally:

The historical conservation of smell visualizes (for lack of a better term) our need to directly experience and engage with the changes in our history’s materiality. In a world accelerating the digitization of knowledge and the virtual documentation of other people’s lives, we should not forget about our desire to sensually experience.

I remember a very very long time ago getting a sharp glance from my mother and a finger to her lips begging me to stop my blathering when we walked into someone’s house and being ready to cry out in joy over the glorious smell of mustiness and mold, which to me was the height of nostalgia, being the aura emanating from many of the old lovely buildings on the SIL headquarters in High Wycombe. All buildings should smell like that, I have always thought, mixed with slightly burnt toast and prefab chips (or french fries if you’re from the other side of the world) and not like my own house which is a mixture of Teenage Boy, Strange Old Stuff in the Fridge, Dogs Who Constantly Sin, and, just at the moment, Glorious Christmassy Evergreen.

Of course, I also feel fond feelings about the Meat Market in Sikasso, where dead animals are hung up on hooks and left there to enjoy the hot savannah breeze for at least a whole day, which is not the sort of experience that many other people who have never been there before might enjoy. I always think the people visiting a country like Mali for the first time should try to ease in not just visually–not going straight to the cloth market–but also by way of the nose, as in maybe not going to the Meat Market for at least many weeks, if not months. That is, if a person has a delicate constitution.

Anyway, today I’m going to go bleach everything–well, maybe not bleach, but some other powerful agent that will make this place smell like heaven and not hell. Maybe I should go buy some incense. Have a great day!

Photo by Elsa Olofsson on Oracle

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