Leather covered perfume case, Netherlands, 1671-1700.

It’s pretty straightforward to trace the olfactive heritage of a perfume house, but not so much that of past civilizations. Odeuropa is setting out to fix that, with a new project focused on exploring Europe’s odoriferous past.

“It’s really smells in general, including industrial odors, body odors…of cities, animals, commodities and perfumes,” explained Caro Lisette, a scent historian and manager of Odeuropa’s olfactory events. “They are part of the whole landscape of odors. What we will do is study historical smells — smell narratives — from the 1600s until the 1920s.”

The research venture, focusing on areas in Europe where French, Slovenian, Italian, German, English, Dutch and Latin were spoken, obtained 2.8 million-euro backing from the EU Horizon 2020 program. Called Negotiating Olfactory and Sensory Experiences in Cultural Heritage Practice and Research, the initiative uses artificial intelligence to look into the importance of scents and smelling in order to better understand how odors have shaped communities and traditions.

AI will help computers virtually “see smells.”

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“Artificial intelligence experts, both in the domain of language and images — in paintings — will teach the computer to recognize smell-related words and events in texts and images. So we’ll bring new images, [information] to the surface, but also, of course, new smells — or ‘new old’ smells,” said Lisette.

Machine learning is being coupled with computer vision plus computational linguistic experts. Then semantic web experts and cultural historians will assemble an archive of the smells and their meanings, which will be accessible to the public online.

Just three months in, Lisette has been fascinated by how many olfactory objects pop up in art, though they’re not documented as such thus far by museums. Pomanders, for instance, are often just viewed as jewels, rather than specifically smell-related items.

Over the next three years, some of the identified scents will be revived by heritage scientists and International Flavors and Fragrances perfumers. About a dozen reconstructed odors will be shared in museums through events, starting this fall.

“For example, connect paintings to olfactory tours with the aim of telling different stories about Europe by creating smell communities, bringing people closer together when they smell things,” said Lisette. “[It enhances] inclusivity.”

And accessibility: Blind people, for instance, will be able to get in touch with their heritage through their sense of smell.

“When you smell something, you feel much more connected to the past,” said Lisette. “It will be like wearing a new pair of glasses that allows you to look at history from the perspective of the nose. So then you might end up with different stories, and that’s what really interests us, as well.”

Seven countries and six academic institutions in Europe are involved. Odeuropa’s findings will be shared with policy-makers, such as UNESCO, too.

“Because this is a heritage that needs to be protected,” said Lisette. “And then our project hopefully will propel new projects in the future…in different parts of the world.

“Smells disappear as we speak,” she continued. “So it’s important to safeguard them. Because of our different cultural backgrounds, we perceive and evaluate smells very differently. That’s something you also need to document.”

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