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Documenting the Smell of History

Posted April 21, 2017 11:00 AM by MaggieMc

It seems that nowadays, we document everything. We can archive our sense of sight in photographs, the things we hear in audio or video recordings, the things we touch in our collection of significant textiles; we even document our sense of taste in the recipes we pass from generation to generation.

What we don’t seem to document is smell, despite the fact that it is strongly connected to our memories and emotions. But now, that’s all going to change if two researchers from the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage have their way.

Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlič recently conducted a two-part investigation into the viability of preserving culturally significant smells, and how they could be used as part of the museum experience to capture the emotions of the visitors.

The case study used in the research was the smell of old books—and yes, as a bookworm that was what caught my eye. According to the researchers, they chose the smell of paper because of “its well-recognized cultural significance and available research.”

In the first part of the study, the researchers conducted a survey of visitors to the Dean and Chapter Library at the St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. All of the visitors described the smell as ‘woody,’ but other descriptions varied. 86% of those surveyed decided on a partially smoky smell, 71% considered it earthy, and 41% caught a hint of vanilla hiding in the library. These results can be seen in the figure to the left that tracks the respondents’ characterization of the smells.

In a different experiment, the researchers brought an unlabeled smell with them to the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. In this case, respondents most frequently cited ‘chocolate’ as the smell. Other answers ranged from ‘coffee,’ ‘old,’ ‘wood,’ and ‘burnt,’ to ‘fish,’ ‘body odor,’ ‘rotten socks,’ and ‘mothballs.’

Personally, I find it interesting how the less appealing odors were identified once the smell, which was sampled from a book from 1928, was no longer associated with the space. There must be something about a library that can make mothballs and dust feel warm and cozy.

The second analysis was a chemical one. The researchers sampled volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in order to determine the source of the olfactory sensations. VOCs are “chemicals that evaporate at low temperatures, many of which can be perceived as scents or odors.”

After the chemical analysis, Bembibre and Strlič combined their findings into a “historic book odor wheel.” The wheel contains “general aroma categories, sensory descriptors, and chemical information on the smells sampled.” The likely chemical compound producing the smell was matched using established odor description databases, something I hadn’t even known existed.

Bembibre, the corresponding author of the study, adds that the historic book odor wheel has “the potential to be used as a diagnostic tool by conservators, informing on the condition of an object, for example, its state of decay, through its olfactory profile.”

So, the next time you catch a scent that sends you into the depths of your memory, remember it, because it may be the next new way to document your personal history.

Image credits: Cecilia Bembibre and Matija Strlič via Heritage Science

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#1

Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/21/2017 11:26 AM

Brings a whole new meaning to "The Wheel of Fortune".

We need a flatulizer on aisle #7, please.

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#2

Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/21/2017 12:08 PM

The study of the mechanics of scent--how it works--is fascinating, as I found out when I researched this blog about the effect of scent on productivity. Lots of controversy between different camps, which reminds me of various other scientific fights where the old guard doesn't want to listen to the young guard. But I digress.

Really interesting post!

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#4
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Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/21/2017 12:19 PM

I worked QC in an injection molding installation here in West Texas once, and the odor was oppressive, and no one working there really seemed happy. It was almost as if oil was in the air, and would settle on your face throughout the day, immediate shower on arrival home was my remedy, that and plenty of cold beer to forget the last 12 hours.

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#6
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Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/21/2017 12:55 PM

Wasn't inhaling that stuff bad for you? Or was it just the esters or ethers or whatever makes plastic stink that made it into your work area?

Supposedly the scent of lavender improves productivity. Citrus energizes. Obviously injection-molded plastic makes you crave a cold brew .

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#7
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Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/21/2017 2:19 PM

Of course it was bad for me, look at me now. I look like the mad scientist guy on The Simpsons.

I could be so demented, that I only imagined that character though.

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#8
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Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/21/2017 2:23 PM

FYI, that guy is not from the Simpsons, but from Futurama (Professor Farnsworth).

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#26
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Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/24/2017 9:30 AM

So it was you, after all..

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#15
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Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/21/2017 11:03 PM

C'mon, James, you know as well as I do the West Texas air smells like shite money anyway. All that rotten-egg H2S from those oil wells? So it was a different stink in the plant - variety is the spice of Life!

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#24
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Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/24/2017 8:31 AM

Then there is the feed yard located just SE of Lubbock, and I happen to live in that quadrant of town. Fortunately the prevailing winds are out of the SW.

Here in Lubbock, we frequently recall our children memories around cattle, in the form of a SE breeze, referred to as "Smellavision". It is so intense, we can see the money.

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#13
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Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/21/2017 9:33 PM

I did read the post through. But Taste is also interesting, where scent also plays a big part in.

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#3

Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/21/2017 12:10 PM

The human olfactory system. 1: Olfactory bulb 2: Mitral cells 3: Bone 4: Nasal epithelium 5: Glomerulus 6: Olfactory receptor cells

Credit: Patrick J. Lynch, medical illustrator

http://news.wgbh.org/post/professional-smeller-nose-worlds-most-sensitive-instrument

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fragrance_wheel

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#9
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Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/21/2017 3:49 PM

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#10
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Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/21/2017 4:26 PM

Those are wonderful pictures. If only I could smell them!

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#12
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Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/21/2017 6:06 PM

I believe if you have seen these blossoms and flowers you may be able to recall the fragrance by concentrating on the pictures....the memories should be linked....

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#31
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Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/27/2017 9:51 PM

Aaahhhhoooooouuuuummmmm

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#32
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Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/29/2017 4:11 PM

OH, heck, now that I just looked at all those blooms, my sinuses are closing in!

I had to get meds as a result of the Bluebonnets in our yard a couple of weeks ago that have finally progressed to nasty looking yellow beans. Then the Afghan pines were in bloom at our New Mexico place this week, and I was just getting over that one!

And my doctor is still convinced that the allergy shots I took for 5 years had cured me.

Then again, the original topic has long been an interesting speculation I have had. Any time I see any kind of period drama or cowboy movie, I have always wondered how bad people must have smelled before we had good plumbing, modern sewage, and treated water!

But, I know places where you can find out a lot of those details...... I will leave it to your imaginations! It would be politically incorrect for me to spell it out! Or perhaps engender a revolt from those snowflakes streaming out of their "safe zones".

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#19
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Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/22/2017 10:30 AM

So, according to the diagram, we smell in RGB?

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#22
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Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/23/2017 10:33 PM

...thasrite....

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#5

Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/21/2017 12:33 PM

Throughout most of human history, I suspect that one of the most frequent odors encountered by European humans (other than intense body odor from not bathing, etc.)

would have been the smell of death. In the fetid crowded cities, there was discarded offal of animals, and dog knows what simply thrown off balconies to the street below.

Sewers if they existed were open raw sewage flows.

Rats infested everywhere.

Then we arrive a few days after the battle on the "fields of honor". Not so honorable with bodies lying about, swollen with maggots, festering in the hot sun, bursting with rot in other cases. The few remaining survivors left on the field not already found and dispatched (with mercy) by the victors, crying out for their mothers, and begging merciful death to visit upon them.

Do not worship battle or war, for it is neither glorious, nor is victory ever more than fleeting in purpose or in memory. Congratulate the warrior when he comes home carrying his shield, and not riding on it. Do not pity the dead of the battlefield either, for they are dining in the halls of glory with Odin, as long as they displayed some measure of valor in battle. Cowards will only see the raven that plucks out the eyes.

One thing is true, the gaping maw of Death awaits every man and woman, every creature, and every other living thing on this good Earth. Thus we should enjoy the fruits of our labors, our wine, and our food whilst we may.

If war overtakes the world once again, I pray it be a swift, merciless war, leaving a clean wound on the body of humanity, that she may once again heal, bloom, and weave her fair hair with the flowers of peace.

In the end, the day will finally come when every man, woman, and child may sit in peace in the shade of their own vineyard, their own fig tree, and enjoy the meat of their table in peace. In that day, no man will enrage his neighbor, and no neighbor will interfere in the work, prosperity, or peace of any other man. That day will mark a quantum leap in the evolution of human intellect, human intent, and human nature.

What a sweet aroma offered up to Dog will appear in that day.

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#11

Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/21/2017 5:55 PM

I won't tell you what the smell of high quality dark chocolate does to me.....

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#23
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Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/23/2017 10:47 PM

I chanced to visit San Francisco some years back and was standing downwind near the Ghirardelli Chocolate factory. Omg what a wonderful smell!

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#14

Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/21/2017 9:37 PM

Whereas vision has 4 types of receptors, olfaction has hundreds at least. Vision is well understood, and you can match any color at your local paint store. Each type of olfactory receptor apparently responds to different molecules and a molecule may stimulate more that one type of receptor. So there are countless combinations. In addition, there is no way to record or reproduce a smell like photographing an image, so much research is subjective.

There are two theories of how olfactory receptors work. The primary theory is the shape or "lock and key" theory is that there are sockets in the receptors where certain molecule shapes fit. The second, proposed by Luca Turin, the Vibrational theory is clearly the underdog, but it is interesting that there have been some recent studies that have lent it support:

https://phys.org/news/2015-04-plausibility-vibrational-theory.html

https://phys.org/news/2016-02-evidence-vibration-theory.html

Anybody interested might enjoy this book.

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Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/21/2017 11:10 PM
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#17
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Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/22/2017 7:47 AM

Some people do it for a living..

for smell and tastes tester. For taster testers, I'm sure for smell testers.. they have a regiment restrictive lifestyle.

for test testers, no spicy foods, such as garlic, onions or alcohol, their foods are pretty bland as not to affect their palate.

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#28
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Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/24/2017 11:07 AM

Actually it's just the opposite....

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#18
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Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/22/2017 10:21 AM

You're right, that's basically what perfume is, a way to record and reproduce scent. Creating a perfume is no less an art form than painting a picture or composing music. AFAIK, there is no automatic way to record scent like taking a photograph. It still needs the artist's touch.

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#20
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Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/22/2017 12:04 PM

That is probably true because of the complex nature of volatile aromatic compounds, and the need to simplify the formula and make it uniform, robust and compatible....

http://www.compoundchem.com/2015/02/12/flowers/

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#21
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Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/23/2017 3:59 AM

These are fairly automated...or are they the artists?

There are even less bulky travel versions...

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Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/26/2017 9:02 AM

When I throw a tennis ball out back and then let my dog out to find the ball he will follow the trail by sniffing where it bounced. ...And he​ can tell if the bounce trail is fresh or previously sniffed. ..Or so he tells me.

... That's sMeLLoViSsoN!

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#25
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Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/24/2017 8:34 AM

Yeah, I can't wait until real Smellavision comes out, and we catch a playback of "Blazing Saddles" - -the bean scene. NOT.

Then there are the scenes in movies where someone's just been blown to bits, or received a large caliber round through the gut.

Then there are scenes with huddled masses arriving on our fetid shores during the latter part of 19th Century.

I suspect History does not smell as sweet as some of you fantasize.

On the other hand, I love my dogs, and the smell of my dog's feet reminds me of love, loyalty, devotion, and trust. How about them apples?

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#27

Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/24/2017 9:39 AM

Some sniff dirty laundries...

but, I guess you haven't seen this movie before.

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#29

Re: Documenting the Smell of History

04/24/2017 7:51 PM

I love the smell of dimethylacetamide in the morning!

Nice article!

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