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Smell: A Catalyst for Conversation

Good, bad, and ugly, all of us have strong memories tied to smell (sadly, the first thought that comes to my mind is my dog after he got skunked!).  I got to thinking about the power of smell recently while visiting a little nature center at Cachuma Lake, located between Solvang and Santa Barbara, CA.  In one corner of the main exhibit room they had a small bookcase full of mason jars with pierced lids containing a variety of things native to the area.  My friends and I spent a few minutes passing the jars around and talking about the various smells.  As simple as the display was, we were engaged, and it sparked conversation.

The visit reminded me of when we started using smells in one of the historic houses at the Homestead Museum, where I work.  Inside the kitchen of La Casa Nueva, our fully furnished and restored 1920s Spanish Colonial Revivial style house, we hid a candle warmer with a sugar cookie-scented candle on top.  Low tech, but it did the job, and still does today.  We rotate the smells in the kitchen based on the time of year—and it costs practically nothing.  In our case, it adds ambiance.  It makes people feel like the house is lived in, and it often sparks conversations.

I remember one family that was captivated by the cookie smell while looking at the 1920s-era stove, which was similar to one owned by one of the visitor’s grandparents.  The family fell so deeply into personal conversation that I felt like I should excuse myself!  To be successful, though, museums and historic sites must consider why they want to use smells, and how many.  There is such a thing as overkill!  A great blog entry by Rosie Cook from the Chemical Heritage Foundation  reminds people to think of context.  “Will the visitor understand why a gallery or area smells like a combination of cut grass, manure, and mud,” she asks, “or will they just know that it stinks and move on?”

Many museums are linking smells to their interpretive goals.  The Chicago History Museum has a children’s exhibit called Sensing Chicago that encourages visitors to use their five senses as they explore Chicago’s history.  As described on their website, “Children utilize a ‘Smell Map’ to explore different scents and identify places and events in Chicago’s history.  Smell the Great Chicago Fire, while discovering that in just 36 hours, the fire destroyed 18,000 buildings, and 28 miles of wooden streets. Other smells and fun facts include chocolate, hot dogs, the prairie, steel mills, and wild onions that gave Chicago its name.”  At the very moment that I was reading about the exhibit on-line, a colleague walked into my office and I asked her to tell me about the most memorable scent-laden exhibit she had seen in a museum.  Without hesitation (and not seeing what I was reading!) she said “The Chicago History Museum!  I smelled manure—it was great!”

The bottom line is that smell can be a catalyst for conversation—with interpretive staff and among visitors by themselves.  It does not have to be complicated.  Even a simple mason jar with holes can be effective if used creatively.  Do you have any examples of effective and or creative ways to integrate smells into exhibits or programs?

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