What’s that smell? It might just be the next big thing in travel.
A dozen travellers gather around Martin Schaffner’s 16th-century painting “Christ in Limbo,” and take a deep breath. Thanks to hand-held scent diffusers these tourists are getting a whiff of smoke and sulfur to evoke the fiery gates of hell depicted in the Renaissance artwork. It’s all part of a “Follow Your Nose” tour at Museum Ulm, in Germany. By pairing artworks depicting odorous things—flower gardens, a perfume ball, or a table full of food—with reconstructed scents, the cultural centre hopes to further immerse patrons in its collection.
A growing number of museums, hotels, and fragrance experts are offering smell-based adventures to help travellers connect more deeply with destinations. Scent is the only sense that is directly linked to the memory and emotional learning centres of the brain, says Rachel Herz, a neuroscientist at Brown University and an expert on the psychological science of smell. “This makes the sense of smell really unique with respect to how we experience the world around us,” says Herz. “Our experience of scent is inherently emotional and visceral because of this neural organization.”
Though scents are powerful time machines, olfactory history has been largely overlooked. Experts are now pushing to preserve and protect smells as intangible pieces of cultural heritage—and inviting travellers to experience how complex odours can tell stories about forgotten places, traditions, and changing environments in nature.
Reconstructing scents from the past isn’t easy. To create the “Follow Your Nose” exhibit in 2022, Museum Ulm partnered with Odeuropa, a project that’s developing new methods—including artificial intelligence and sensory mining tools—to identify and preserve Europe’s heritage smells. The scents for the exhibit, produced by the perfumers at International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF), blend chemically authentic reconstructions of odours with oils and other materials that won’t harm the artworks. “Museums are controlled environments, but they don’t always foster experiences that are as rich as life,” says Cecilia Bembibre, who leads Odeuropa’s work on olfactory heritage science. “This is a missed opportunity.”
Other exhibits are harnessing the power of scent. In 2022, the Louvre in Paris launched a new series of olfactory tours connected to its still life collection; Museo del Prado, in Madrid, debuted a scent exhibit inspired by Jan Brueghel’s paintings of “The Five Senses.” “Smell can engage audiences that are not easy to engage through visual mediums,” says Bembibre. “[It could appeal] to the visually impaired or younger audiences who are looking for different experiences."
Due to climate change, some scents—and the stories attached to them—are at risk of being lost, she says. Odeuropa researchers are addressing this challenge through an “encyclopedia of smell heritage” that will be published in 2023. They’re also working with UNESCO to create policies around protecting scents. Beyond Europe, Bembibre sees opportunities to safeguard scents in underrepresented communities, ensuring that this intangible layer of cultural heritage is preserved for future generations. (Adapted from 'What’s that smell? It might just be the next big thing in travel’, nationalgeographic.com, 2022)
What is interesting about the way these visitors experience art?