19 Jan 2020

Saving the smells of our history

From The Weekend with Karyn Hay , 8:10 am on 19 January 2020

Cecilia Bembibre is on a mission to save a part of our heritage that is often forgotten, or not thought of - the smell of things. 

That delicious smell of an old book through to the scent of a person, a building or even a town - she's intent on finding culturally significant smells, and capturing them. 

She's doing a PhD project at the University College London Institute for Sustainable Heritage on identifying and documentation of heritage smells. 

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Photo: supplied

Bembibre tells Lynn Freeman an obvious example of a culturally significant smell is that of old books. 

“It’s a smell that’s familiar to most of us of a certain age, but physical books and libraries are disappearing from the domestic environment. Not everyone has a shelf fill of physical books in their home anymore.

“We know that the smell of old books is one we value and attribute cultural meaning to. Many people equate it with knowledge. We get some sensory pleasure and we get information, for instance the state of the material of the book.”

She says that when we make moves towards convenience and accessibility, for instance by digitising books and archives, we lose something in the process. 

Once a smell has been selected, Bembibre uses chemistry to capture the chemical compounds that give off the smell. That allows her to identify the compounds responsible, and then attempt to reproduce that odour. 

“The most emotional memories are invoked by smells that we perceive before the age of eight or ten years old. That’s why childhood smells are so powerful to us, they connect us directly to those experiences.”

She says there are clear trends for generations.

“People born before the 1960s tend to prefer or have powerful memories associated with natural smells, for instance freshly cut grass or manure. For a lot of people who grew up in a rural environment, that’s not necessarily a horrible smell.

“After the 1960s, we have play-doh and the smell of hairspray. In the present, the smell of plastic is very familiar to kids, especially the warm plastic coming from computers.”

As for her personally, the smell of the traditional Argentinian tea Mate is a powerful one. 

“I’m originally from Argentina and I’ve been living in Europe for 20 years now, but every morning when I prepare it, it immediately brings me home.”