Notes on the here and now

Scents and sensibility

Interior of a Tavern Adriaen Brouwer

Who’s heard of the Odeuropa project? Me neither, until I saw it briefly mentioned in a newspaper article. It turns out to be a research project, staffed by academics from both humanities and sciences, whose goal is record and preserve Europe’s ‘olfactory heritage’.

Here’s their mission statement:

1. to recognize, safeguard, present, and promote olfactory heritage
2. to develop state-of-the-art AI techniques to identify and trace olfactory information in text and image datasets; to investigate how ‘smell’ is expressed in different languages, with what places it was associated, what kinds of events and practices it characterised, to what emotions it is linked, and how smell and diseases are interrelated, et cetera.
3. to show that critically engaging our sense of smell and our scent heritage is an important and a viable means for connecting and promoting Europe’s tangible and intangible cultural heritage.

I am quite taken with all this but reading that mission statement again, particularly the phrase, ‘identify and trace olfactory information in text and image datasets’, I was disappointed. Text and image datasets? Preserving olfactory heritage in images and texts is like preserving music by means paintings of musicians or reviews of concerts. It isn’t the actual sensory experience, not at all. Surely a true database of smells would itself be olfactory, not visual or textual.

How could you go about preserving Europe’s actual olfactory heritage? I suppose you could investigate old recipes for foods and drinks and perfumes, and try to recreate some of it that way. But what about the composite smells of a tavern in seventeenth century Amsterdam or a fish market in nineteenth century Sicily? How would you identify the main components of those comminglings, how would you recreate them, how would you store them? Practically impossible, I think.

Still, this research area is in its infancy. Perhaps some of those scientists could invent a device, an odour trap, analogous to the insect traps used by entomologists. Air samples, denoting specific local atmospheres, could be collected from all over Europe. Surely it’s not inconceivable that future scientists would be able to use those samples, via chemical analysis, to recreate the smells of particular places, particular environments? Odour, after all, is particulate. Those Odeuropa researchers could at least start bottling the stuff and figuring out how to preserve it, even if the tools for replication don’t yet exist. Wouldn’t that be a genuine olfactory heritage? It’s a thought.

[Image of Adriaen Brouwer’s painting Interior of a Tavern courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.]