The Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage was launched in 2023 to bring together academic expertise on smell from multiple disciplines. This first public-access knowledge base for smell history and heritage promotes the free and open dissemination of knowledge about past smells and their role in the present. Rather than being a finished, closed, statement about smell history and heritage, it aims to act as a stepping stone that will support and promote further research in the area.
Scents and smelling are slowly making their way back into museums, but they have yet to be fully integrated into heritage practice and policy. In recent decades a vibrant academic field of smell studies has started to trace the role of smells in the past, but the resulting research is often relatively hidden behind paywalls or in scholarly monographs.
The Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage seeks to identify, consolidate, and promote knowledge of the wide- ranging role scents and smelling have in our cultural heritage and history.
- Smell History
- Smell Heritage
At the core of smell history or the history of smell is the claim that smells and smelling are deeply historical. The ways in which people have used their noses, the meanings given to smells, and the material odours that surround people - what we can collectively call their 'smellscapes' - have all changed over time.
Take the example of plague and its histories. Seventeenth-century apothecaries sniffed out the powers of medicines in ways that are lost to the average twenty-first century pharmacist, who deals with looking at packaging and prescriptions rather than smelling herbs and spices; the scent of rosemary was associated with prophylactic protection against plague for early modern Europeans rather than being a mere flavouring for food; and the smells of urban spaces were not (or at least not only) stronger or more numerous but qualitatively different in character to those that surround us in cities today. Whilst 'organic' smells might have been common in early modern cities, today we are surrounded by the odours of air pollution, fast food, and synthetic fragrance.
Early histories of smell fleshed out the Freudian fable of a modern world that feared smells. In 1982 Alain Corbin published his hugely important work Le miasme et la jonquille: l'odorat et l'imaginaire social, XVIlle- XIXe siècles (translated into English as The Foul and the Fragrant: Odor and the French Social Imagination). He argued that from the 1750s European modernity was characterised by a war on odours, motivated by medical fears of disease-inducing-miasma, that led bodies and spaces to be deodorized. When David Howes, Constance Classen, and Anthony Synnott came to write their equally groundbreaking 1994 volume, Aroma: The Cultural History of Smell, they began by describing the modern world bequeathed to us by Corbin's deodorising nineteenth-century subjects: 'the sense of smell is repressed in the modern west, and its social history ignored". Aroma matched Corbin's narrative about the deodorization of the western world with a story about how, in areas such as religious life and horticulture, smell lost its significance with the arrival of modernity.
However, smell history has now moved beyond these initial narratives and begun to explore the nuance and complexity of the olfactory past. Today, the history of smell is an expanding field. Single-scent histories have recovered past perceptions of odours ranging from ambergris and civet to sulphur and the durian fruit. Books and articles have explored the smellscapes of spaces ranging from late medieval churches and Ottoman mosques to nineteenth-century American streets and twentieth-century heavy-water plants. Above all, smell history is now beginning to incorporate a variety of new methodological perspectives. Histories of smell are now beginning to drawn on insights from the environmental humanities, postcolonial literary criticism, and queer theory as new scholars began to explore the full depth and breadth of the olfactory past.
Smell heritage is a sensory dimension of artefacts, practices and spaces which conveys unique values and meanings and/or are significant to communities, groups and individuals as part of their heritage. We can distinguish four different groups of smell-heritage relations.Firstly, smells central to cultural practices which are significant for a certain community (for instance: incense burning in churches, mosques and temples, aromatherapy, or the use of the nose in certain crafts and during festive events). Secondly, smells as objects with cultural significance (for instance: myrrh, civet, historic perfumes, tobacco, gunpowder). Thirdly, smells as attributes of historical artefacts (for instance: the smell of old books, pomanders). Finally, smells as attributes of natural and cultural sites (‘smellscapes’) that are significant for these (built) environments and that possess unique values (for instance: the smellscape of a historical library, cocoa factory, food market, monument, botanical garden, or volcanic pit).
A historical or heritage smellscape is a collection of smells linked to a specific place with value or significance for an individual or community. These smells are made up of odours (the material emissions of smell characterized as chemical compounds) and noses (the values, meanings, feelings, identities with which those smells are associated). The uniqueness of the smellscape may be constituted by unique smells; a unique arrangement of smells; or the unique meanings or practices associated with that particular smell by the community in question. The smells within a heritage smellscape may belong to one or several of three categories: keynote smells, smell signals, or smellmarks. Keynote smells are those that are central to a smellscape and which form the olfactory background. They may not be actively noticed in the course of everyday life but it would be noted by the community if they disappeared. Smell Signals are foreground smells that involve conscious and active sniffing by the community. Smellmarks are those smells that have a unique and special significance for a community. They are therefore especially deserving of protection.
- Smell History
- Smell Heritage
The Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage is an ongoing project, hence we are always keen to gather more Clusters of Entries. If you have an idea for a Cluster of Entries for the Encyclopedia then get in touch via the email below.
If you have used the Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage, we'd love to hear:
• What you used it for.
• What you thought was good or useful.
• What you felt was missing or needed improving.
You can email us any other feedback or when your are experiencing technical difficulties, at:
Dr William Tullett
William Tullett, University of York, Editor in Chief
Alex McQueen, KNAW, Editorial Assitant
William Tullett, University of York
Inger Leemans, KNAW/VU
Marieke van Erp, KNAW/VU
Sofia Collette Ehrich, KNAW
Ronald Sluijter, KNAW
Arno Bosse, KNAW
Ali Hürriyetoglu, KNAW
Sophie Elpers, KNAW
Vincent Christlein, FAU
Andrea Büttner, FAU
Peter Bell, FAU
Helene Loos, FAU
Mathias Zinnen, FAU
Prathmesh Madhu, FAU
Sara Tonelli, FBK
Elisa Leonardelli, FBK
Design and Art Direction
BSTN // Basten Stokhuijzen
Denim Ink by Displaay
Martina Plantijn by Klim Type Foundry
Slussen Mono by Blaze Type