Insight & Analysis

Smelling history

Published: Mar 2017

Researchers aim to recreate the smell of an early 20th century library.

History is largely preserved through images and sounds, but very rarely can history be re-lived through the sense of smell.

Researchers at New York City’s Morgan Library & Museum are attempting to change this, however, by documenting the aromas that filled the John Pierpont Morgan Library when it first opened 110 years ago.

Headspace technology, which requires scientists to place a glass bell on the pages of a 100-year-old book and use a wax needle to sample the manuscript’s chemical aura without causing any damage, will be used to bring the smell back to life.

“I try to get students to rethink how we can preserve objects in a creative way that re-engages people with those objects,” Professor Jorge Otero-Pailos, who leads the project with Morgan Library & Museum curator Christine Nelson, told Hyperallergic. “In architecture school, we teach all about space, light and colour of spaces, everything but the smell.”

In addition to the smell of the books, the scientists are also trying to regenerate the smell of the museum’s fireplace, its 16th-century tapestry and an old box of cigars that belonged to J.P. Morgan himself.

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