PCN Blog: Cecilia Bembibre Jacobo on "Olfactory Heritage"

By Colleen Grant posted 05-01-2023 08:00


This interview is part of the Preventive Care Network's blog series, which features interviews with conservators and collection care professionals. The stories and insights shared in these interviews highlight the many aspects of collection care and its cross-disciplinary nature. If you have a project or story you'd like to share or know someone we should feature in this series, please contact us at

This edition of the blog is an interview that PCN Editor Wendi Field-Murray conducted with Cecilia Bembibre Jacobo, Lecturer in Sustainable Heritage at the University College London Institute for Sustainable Heritage (ISH). It coincides with the PCN column in the May 2023 edition of AIC News, which is all about the intersections of collections care and the five senses. 

Hi Cecilia - thanks for agreeing to speak with us today for this themed issue on the human senses! Could you just give us an introduction to your own background, and what you are working on at UCL in the area of heritage smells? 

My background is in communication and heritage science. I started researching the role of smell in human communication many years ago, interested in how the scents we perceive subconsciously have such an impact on our interactions with people, and in how smells are represented visually and semantically in media. About a decade ago, when I met my colleague Matija Strlic, Professor of Heritage Science at UCL ISH and Professor of Analytical Chemistry at University of Ljubljana, we focused on how scents and our sense of smell are important to cultural heritage. Now, my research in this area covers mostly two aspects: (1) understanding issues related to presenting and communicating smells in museums (and the conservation and curatorial challenges involved, such as indoor air quality) and developing best practice, and (2) advancing methodology and policies to preserve smells of cultural significance for the future, as heritage.

Cecilia capturing the scent of a historic book at Knole. Credit: The National Trust - James Dobson.

Could you explain to our readers what is meant by the term “olfactory heritage?”

Olfactory heritage is an aspect of heritage concerning smells and smell experiences that are significant to communities, groups and individuals because they connect them to places, identities and practices. As we do with other expressions of cultural heritage, these smells and smell experiences need to be safeguarded and transmitted to future generations. This is a working definition, developed by the Odeuropa research project and currently being refined with the input of a network of heritage professionals.

What is the relationship between our sense of smell and memory or identity?

Smells are powerful triggers of emotional memories. Sometimes these memories are collective, for example, certain natural scents evoke childhood for a particular generation and some artificial smells elicit childhood memories for another age group. In addition to age, our interpretation of smells is impacted by cultural background, region… Victor Fraigneau, a French researcher, speaks of the way smells meaningful to particular groups undergo a process of patrimonialisation and are proposed as identity symbols. For example, this is happening in Slovenia with a recent tourism campaign based on sensory experiences, or in New Mexico with chile becoming the state ´official´scent. Another example to record smells as part of the identity of a place is the recent inscription of the perfume-making region of Grasse by UNESCO as intangible heritage of humanity. These initiatives document the importance of sensory information, and smells in particular, in our experience of places and people.

Since this work is so interdisciplinary, can you talk about what different fields of expertise come into play, and what their roles are?

Matija and I are currently part of an international project researching the olfactory heritage of Europe (Odeuropa), which is a great example of how cross-disciplinary olfactory heritage is as an emerging field. We work with computer scientists (computational linguists, computer vision and semantic web experts) to mine historic texts and images and extract smell-related information. Then, historians, art historians and social scientists take those texts and images and weave them into meaningful stories about smells in connection to people, places, artefacts and practices. Because we want to present some of those significant smells to the public in museums, we work with chemists and perfumers developing historically-informed recreations of those scents, and with conservators and curators ensuring they can be safely communicated in the gallery floor. There is a growing body of work on olfactory museology, developing best practices around working with smell in galleries, libraries, archives and museums. At the UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage, we focus on assessing impact of the introduction of new smells, in the sense of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), in the museum, and studying potential interactions with existing collections.

Cecilia smelling a book at St Paul´s cathedral library, one of the sites where the smell has been preserved. Credit: FMartin.

What unique opportunities/challenges does the preservation of heritage smells present?

The idea that we can preserve smells, and their meaning, for future generations, has obsessed scientists and writers for a long time. There is a beautiful short story by Primo Levi, titled The Mnemogogues, where a retiring doctor has created a cabinet of scent memories, and shared his life memories of places and people via a series of tiny vials. Until recently, there was no methodology for doing this systematically; Matija and I worked on this during my PhD project, called Smell of Heritage, which proposed the first framework for identifying, documenting and preserving smells with cultural value. This framework involves an assessment of significance, chemical and sensory characterisation, and the development of archival tools such as odour wheels and smell reconstruction methods. Two follow-up projects, Odeuropa, which I have spoken about, and Odotheka, a Polish-Slovene collaboration creating an archive of smells of heritage objects, are taking this work further. There is still much to progress, starting with developing specific expertise in the techniques to describe odours, adapting the vocabularies for the characterisation of historic artefacts and materials. Also, exploring the reconstruction of historic smells, for which frequently we have only textual sources, and understanding how they can be authentically perceived today.

To what extent is this work collaborative with the associated community? Are they requesting that certain smells be preserved? If so, are there patterns in what those smells tend to be (i.e., food smells, etc.)? Or are you just salvaging whatever smells you can find?

Our work has some visibility, and we are delighted when people reach out to share smells they would like preserved, and tell us the stories about their value. We consider three main categories of smells to be heritage: (1) they are olfactory objects with cultural value, such as historic perfumes and some fragrant materials like myrrh or oud; (2) they are associated cultural practices significant for a group (such as incense-burning or the way the nose is used in certain crafts to assess quality) and (3) they are attributes of heritage artefacts and sites and carry valuable information about them (smell of pomanders, historic libraries). In this last category we have preserved the smell of a heritage library, a historic house and an old church interior. I am now working on preserving the scent of frankincense - this involves engaging different groups for which this smell has value, and recording the practices, traditions and meanings associated with it. Stakeholders play an essential role in the smell preservation process; without their involvement this important heritage might be lost. 

Cecilia analysing smells using gas chromatography-olfactometry at Olfasense offices in Kiel, Germany. Credit: LVera.

I am curious about the ethical questions surrounding this work. Have you ever preserved smells relating to difficult heritage (i.e., a destructive fire, war, oil spills, etc.)? Or do you find that most of this work revolves around the maintenance of positive memories/heritage? 

This is an excellent question. While we have not yet preserved some of the smells you mentioned, Inger Leemans, PI of Odeuropa, worked on recreating stinkbombs evoking the bombing of Groningen in 1672, and researcher Kate Mclean has worked with the smellscape of Widnes and the legacy of chemical manufacturing. Through these and other cases we have been discussing the ethical implications and opportunities of nose-on treatments of difficult heritage.

What advice do you have for preventive care specialists who may want to explore their own collections for heritage smells? What are some first steps, and what should we keep in mind regarding their preservation? 

Our experience shows that conservators have an excellent olfactory knowledge of materials developed through practice, but that the information related to the way artefacts smell is often not recorded or discussed. A conversation with colleagues can inform decision making, such as in the case of the preservation of the smell of a historic dog collar in the Imperial War Museum. On the other hand, the decision to introduce smell as part of storytelling in museums very often is made without the input of preventive conservation professionals, leading to potential risks to collections. As part of the Odeuropa project outputs, this autumn we will publish an online resource for heritage professionals working, or interested in working with smell. 

If you enjoyed this post, check out this month's second PCN blog, an interview with Jamie Lausch Vander Broek on food in cultural heritage collections.