I was born with a pretty acute sense of smell, and have long-since been interested (on a novice level) in the relationship between smell and memory, and the way in which interior designers use smell to influence people (think piping the smell of fresh bread into supermarkets) – it’s fascinating! So I was quite excited to hear about Victoria Henshaw‘s new book, Urban Smellscapes whilst listening to Radio 4 yesterday morning. She was contributing to a programme about Landscape and the Community, specifically about what we lose when we sterilise our environment.
The radio programme made me think back to my earliest memories of smell and the way that smells have the ability to transport me to another time and space… the smell of my freshly washed Grandad and his lashings of aftershave as he called in to our house on the way to the pub when I was a little girl… the smell of my other Grandad’s pipe tobacco mixed with the baking smells from Grandma’s kitchen and the cold air trapped within the thick sandstone walls of their farmhouse. The smell of stepping back in time into a world that I didn’t know on the train at the Yorvik Centre in York – an imagined smell.
The idea of transportative imagined smells reminded me of a brilliant exhibition, If Ever There Was, about extinct and impossible smells that I saw at the Reg Vardy Gallery, University of Sunderland a few years ago (2008, I think). The exhibition drew upon the efforts of perfumers, chemists, botanists and a Nasa scientist.
“What we have created here is a world first, a scientific flight of fancy made up of exotic and strange scents,” says Robert Blackson of the University of Sunderland, mastermind behind the endeavour.
In his book of essays entitled Late Night Thoughts on Listening to Mahler’s Ninth Symphony the physician Lewis Thomas wrote, “The act of smelling something, anything, is remarkably like the act of thinking itself.” I’m inclined to agree, and imagine that Victoria Henshaw is too!
Here’s a link to an interesting blog entry about the exhibition, and a review of the exhibition by Roger Highfield, The Telegraph’s Science Editor. And here’s a link to an interesting talk about Designing Multisensory exhibitions that took place at the Met.