This Exhibit Wants You to Smell the 17th Century, Too

Museum will provide scents with artworks, some not so pleasant
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Mar 21, 2021 11:55 AM CDT
This Exhibit Wants You to Smell the 17th Century, Too
'View of Oudezijds Voorburgwal with the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam,' by Jan van der Heyden.   (Wikimedia Commons/The Yorck Project)

Sure, anyone can see the 17th-cenury canal depicted by artist Jan van der Heyden in his View of Oudezijds Voorburgwal with the Oude Kerk in Amsterdam, but can they smell it? After all, the scene includes something that modern viewers might not pick up on—an outhouse that empties directly into the waterway, notes Smithsonian Magazine. Now a Dutch museum plans to give viewers a whole new sensory experience for that painting and others. Mauritshuis will pair the artworks with odors, though sometimes of the pleasant variety, too. As the Guardian explains, visitors will be able to press a foot pedal near the painting to release puffs of scented air as part of a "Smell the Art: Fleeting–Scents in Colour" exhibit. Artnet News describes the idea as "don't-scratch-but-do-sniff."

When the exhibit opens in August, virtual viewers will be able to order scent kits of their own to share the experience at home. Menachem Wecker of Artnet News writes that the one for the canal leaves "the impression of a dirty gym bag full of spoiled fish," but others aren't so bad. One mimics the smell of a clean linen cupboard, another the perfume from a pomander, which Smithsonian defines as "a sweet-smelling container designed to ward off foul scents and 'bad air' that 17th-century Europeans believed caused illness." The museum says the idea is to give viewers a deeper connection to the art. "The sense of smell is tightly interwoven with the evolutionarily old limbic system of the brain by having direct access to structures like the amygdala, hippocampal complex, and cortex," a Yale neuroscientist tells Artnet News. "These are strongly involved in emotions and memories." (Read more art exhibit stories.)

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