In search of lost scents: new project explores the smells of old Europe

Research project ODEUROPA by VU Researchers Inger Leemans and Caro Verbeek receives €2.8 million from the EU Horizon 2020 Programme.

09/17/2020 | 9:46 AM

ODEUROPA: Negotiating Olfactory and Sensory Experiences in Cultural Heritage Practice and Research is the first European initiative to research our history of scents. The project uses sensory mining techniques to trace and reconstruct our historical scent heritage, and bring them back to our noses.

“Smells shape our experience of the world, yet we have very little sensory information about the past”, explains Inger Leemans, project lead of ODEUROPA and professor of cultural history at VU Amsterdam. “European heritage institutions have invested heavily in the digitization of their collections in recent years. But it remains a major challenge to ask overarching, transnational and long-term questions to these fragmented datasets. What are the key scents, the most fragrant and malodorous places, and what meaning did people attach to them? What scent strategies did people use to protect themselves against bad smells?”

Multidisciplinary team searches heritage collections for scents
An array of academic expertise from across many disciplines like history, computational linguistics, computer vision and semantic web, will search digital heritage collections for scents, aromatic places and olfactory practices. Peter Bell (FAU, Germany) will train computers in tracing odour information in historical images with his Computer Vision group. "We want to teach the computer to see smells."

Sara Tonelli, professor of computational linguistics at Fondazione Bruno Kessler (Italy) will lead a multilingual NLP team together with Marieke van Erp (DHLab, KNAW Humanities Cluster): "ODEUROPA aims to develop a 'computer nose', which traces smells and olfactory experiences from the past in digital texts from seven different languages: from 1600 to the beginning of the twentieth century.” The historical finds will eventually be exhibited in an online Encyclopaedia of Smell Heritage. William Tullett, Fragrance Historian (ARU, England): "This site should become an archive of Europe's olfactory heritage, allowing future generations to access the smells of the past."

Exploring the past through your nose
Working with perfumers, museums, libraries and artists, the ODEUROPA team will reconstruct historical fragrances and curate olfactory events to educate heritage visitors on how to engage with the past through the nose. That is still a challenge. Fragrance historian Caro Verbeek: “Fragrances are a 'highway' to the past". Heritage institutions are becoming more and more interested in involving all the senses, but they still encounter a lack of knowledge, are concerned for the potentially harmful side-effects of scent deployment, and a lack of historical scents. 

ODEUROPA wants to build a bridge between science, heritage institutions and the industry. Together with the Kenniscentrum Immaterieel Erfgoed, the project will also investigate the role odours play in contemporary heritage practices, and how we can ensure that smell is placed higher on the agenda of heritage policy.

Read more about ODEUROPA and the EU Horizon 2020 Programme.