Freewrite #2: On Smell

Museums and heritage institutions, for so long dominated by sight – at least, for much of the twentieth century – are beginning to return to the multisensory nature which they appear to have had prior to the late eighteen hundreds. Tactility and aurality dominate in the museum and gallery experience, but at heritage sites such as Warwick Castle, smell and taste (they host historically themed dinners and have Tussuad’s recreations of the medieval period) also play a part.

Scent, for many people, is crucial to life experience. Personally, I have always had a relatively strong sense of smell – I am first made aware of any impending sickness bug, for instance, by an increasing sense of a metallic, irony tang to the air, and its blood-like taste on my tongue. Scent follows and leads – alerts us to danger or some localised trauma, and attracts us to food. Chemical differences in consumable goods can be detected through smell – anyone experienced in tasting or making coffee, tea or whiskey will tell you as much.

I love scent. Scent is another way of telling – a psychological, emotional and physical form of expression, beyond words, which taps into a very old, animalistic part of the brain. Scent speaks – of the environment, of experience, of the body, of the object. Can it be embraced as part of the museum and gallery experience, beyond recreating the manure of the Middle Ages? I hope so.