What does the past smell like?


Recreating the scents of history, now faded, to recall the past is the new frontier of culture in museums and guided tours.
With a value of 2.8 million euros, ODEUROPA is a project funded by the European Union that aims to develop ways to capture the historical olfactory culture of Europe and allow institutions, such as museums, to use certain fragrances to increase the impact of the collections.


To begin with, the project team examined a large number of digital documents – images, paintings, and text from the 17th to the early 20th century – and labeled them for references to smell. They then trained a machine learning algorithm to recognize these fragrance references, and then set up the algorithm to work on art archives and historical sources in academic databases. This has made it possible to produce a semantic web path of odors (called the European Olfactory Knowledge Graph ), which can help researchers understand how and where odors were created and experienced.

The team published several articles detailing their methodology.
They are currently developing a search engine that can help users discover related odors, similar to how search engines work on the Internet,” explains Marieke van Erp, a member of the research team. It is not yet available to the public, but a version is expected to be available on the web very soon.

Another part of the project is to give cultural institutions a greater capacity to convey scents to the public. In November 2021, the team did a test tour at the Ulm Museum in Germany, where visitors were able to see the art and smell the past as they went along. For example, they could smell a 1628 painting of a wealthy woman holding a pair of perfumed leather gloves. Gloves were a popular gift and accessory at the time. The team collaborated with the parfumiersby the company International Flavors and Fragrances to recreate the perfume so that visitors could smell it while looking at the painting. Overall, visitors thoroughly enjoyed the experience, say members of the research team. “For many, using smell to reflect on objects, stories and places is interesting and represents something new and different” say the project developers.


The scent of hell

An interesting aspect of the research is that people react to smells differently. There are smells that some people cannot perceive, for example. During the Ulm Museum project, the researchers created something that was supposed to represent the scent of hell , depicted in a painting. Some visitors found it plainly unpleasant, while others found it too pleasant to fit into such a terrifying concept.


The team hopes that other projects in the future can draw on the method and tools to further incorporate perfume into cultural institutions. For now, they continue to develop similar scent tours. The last one, called City Sniffers , is a walking tour of Amsterdam which, through the download of an app and after collecting the Rub and Sniff card from the Museum of Amsterdam, gives the possibility to experience the relevant smells along the suggested route.


  • Making scents of the past by reproducing historical fragrances. EU Horizon (


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