Sunday, July 17, 2011

A whiff of history

Azra Raza, 3quarksdaily: A whiff of history

From The Boston Globe:

Awhiffofhistory__1310758902_6508 Think of some of your most powerful memories, and there’s likely a smell attached: the aroma of suntan lotion at the beach, the sharpness of freshly mown grass, the floral trail of your mother’s perfume. “Scents are very much linked to memory,” says perfumer Christophe Laudamiel. “They are linked to remembering the past but also learning from experiences.” But despite its primacy in our lives, our sense of smell is often overlooked when we record our history. We tend to connect with the past visually - we look at objects displayed in a museum, photographs in a documentary, the writing in a manuscript. Sometimes we might hear a vintage speech, or touch an ancient artifact and imagine what it was like to use it. But our knowledge of the past is almost completely deodorized. “It seems remarkable to me that we live in the world where we have all the senses to navigate it, yet somehow we assume that the past was scrubbed of smells,” says sensory historian Mark Smith.

It seems far-fetched to think we could actually start to smell the past - or somehow preserve a whiff of our daily lives. But increasingly, technology is making it possible, and historians, scientists, and perfumers are now taking the idea of smells as historical artifacts more seriously. They argue that it’s time to delve into our olfactory past, trying harder to understand how people experienced the world with their noses - and even save scents for posterity. Their efforts have already made it possible to smell fragrances worn a century ago, to re-create the smell of a rare flower even if it goes extinct, and to better understand the smells that ancient cultures appreciated or detested.

More here.


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