Dear Viveka, thanks for this fascinating paper – I loved your careful analysis of these inspirational shows. I was wondering if you knew anything of the earlier history of using smell in exhibitions? @kate_hill and @tjmcneil might have some insight into this, but I don’t think I’ve come across the purposeful use of smell before it was used in the British Museum/Museum of Mankind’s reconstructive exhibitions of the 1970s, for example in Nomad and City (1978) where the designers and curators hoped to recreate the experience of a souk, including through smell. I’ve got a feeling I’ve come across earlier examples, but they are escaping me at the moment! Thanks again, Claire
It's such a fascinating issue! I don't know of any deliberate uses of smell prior to the 1970s but of course plenty of museum exhibitions DID smell - Alberti talks about how disturbingly anatomy museums might smell and how efforts were made to remove or at least contain and minimise those smells. Recreative displays with real fires, animals, dyeing processes being demonstrated certainly smelled (also Grant at the Highland Folk Museum had some unorthodox methods of dealing with woodworm - liberal use of Cuprinol - so that may have added to the smell...). My main memory of the Weald and Downland Museum is of the smell of wood smoke - the multi-sensory nature of reconstructive exhibitions is definitely part of the appeal and has been since the 1930s at least.
Thank you 🙂 It seems that a visit to a museum might have been quite a multisensory experience in pre-victorian times, and that a sensory shift towards the scientific and the visual changed this approach during the nineteenth century. This is discussed for example by Constance Classen in her article “Museum Manners: The Sensory Life of the Early Museum”, where she points to the massive sensory input in early museums and private collections, and the later change towards an almost complete focus on vision. She writes: “As regards the museum, this sensory shift meant that allowing visitors close contact with museum pieces could no longer be justified by scientific values. The important thing in modernity was to see” (2017, 907).
@viveka_kjellmer Ah yes, of course - I really like Constance Classen's work. I suppose I was thinking about the purposeful introduction of smell in the modern museum, more specifically in the 20th century, but this is a prompt to remember that exhibition 'design' started way before then! 🙂 Perhaps @awitcomb (my "go to" resource for affect and emotion in museums!) might know more?
Yes, thank you Viveka for addressing such a fascinating and under utilized sensory element in the museum exhibition. I was very taken with one of your examples where visitors activated the smells coming from the vessels by cranking a handle to pull out the stopper which after when released would return to seal in the vapor. I don't have much to add further in terms of history except to look at experiences in early-mid 20th century theater, cinema and World's Fairs with Smell-O-Vision and AuromaRama - of course the idea here to associate film and visual narratives with smell. Not many of these exploits took off but they are quite ingenious and may have inspired museum exhibition designers at the time. I ask students in one of the courses I teach to think of a smell associated with childhood and then describe the experience - their responses are always wonderful - a lot of food answers and indicative of the various cultures and backgrounds they come from. My purpose for conducting this exercise is to demonstrate the power of experience as a tool for engagement but also because as you say smell is so evocative and memory inducing. Here's to more smelly museums!
Archigram, the London architects designed and realised the Instant Malaysia exhibition at the Commonwealth Institute in 1973. Here is an excerpt from Archigram Archival Project's text for this exhibition:
"The major feature of the exhibition, which is built on two levels, is the sensory (and sensual) simulator located at the level above the general display area. Inside, 'in 12 minutes you experience the 90º atmosphere of the Malay jungle and the cool winds after the monsoon'. The simulator accommodates up to 15 people at any one time and they are subjected to constantly changing visual images and sounds, and, more powerfully, temperature and humidity. the mechanics of the simulator are interesting - the four screen multi-projection slide system, which is literally done by mirrors, synchronised with three track sound, and the associated impacts of superimposition, dissolve, blink etc...In the end, of course, it is the simulator which really draws one's attention. Rightly or wrongly, this particular piece of hardware is much more intriguing than the content of the exhibition as a whole." Architectural Design, June 1974, pp. 387-388.
The quote references a purpose-built simulator that created an immersive experience for visitors - simulating a Malaysian encounter for the visitor. One of my Malaysian informants who visited the exhibition said when she stepped into the simulator; it felt real. She vividly remembered the artificially induced smell of tropical rain and the humidity touching her skin similar to the blast of hot air when one comes out of Subang Airport (Malaysia's international airport in the seventies).
I found it fascinating. As Archigram managed to construct a tropical climate as an exhibition experience, which in turn, attracted visitors who made repeated visits to the simulator - again, according to my informant who was then a London based designer making weekly visits to Instant Malaysia with her colleagues.
Thanks Kelvin. I've just listened to Marlene Van-de-Casteele’s excellent paper on Panel 13 that references the use of smell in museums much earlier than all this. I’d forgotten that in an exhibition I’ve done some research on, Vogue editor/MET curator Diana Vreeland had pumped a sandalwood fragrance made by Guerlain through the air-conditioning system at the ‘Costumes of Royal India’ at the MET in 1985 (!) She used scent in quite a lot of her shows and was famed for her blurring of commercial and museum spaces in those exhibitions that she created at the Costume Institute. Thanks all! Claire
Thank you all for these very interesting examples and the valuable input. I'm really excited about this conference and all the wonderful presentations, truly inspiring work!