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  • Smell and Preservation
  • Adam Jasper and Jorge Otero-Pailos

Olfaction is a major part of the experience of historic places and is intimately involved in the formation and recall of memories. Yet preservationists receive no training in this area. A tradition of denigration of the sense of smell can be traced back to the Enlightenment, and there is still surprisingly little serious research on a topic that, on the face of things, might be central to the discipline. In the late 2000s, we took part in a number of experimental preservation projects to test the hypothesis that the smell of historic buildings could be included in the range of material phenomena that preservationists document, archive, interpret, and treat. In 2008, working closely with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the perfumer Rosendo Mateu, Jorge produced an olfactory reconstruction of the Philip Johnson Glass House as it would have presented itself in 1949, 1959, and 1969. The reconstruction was based on archival research on the house’s materials, how they age over time, and on Johnson’s activities—especially his smoking, which yellowed the plaster ceiling and impregnated the interior with a distinct smell. The reconstruction had to make an interpretative leap from the archival materials to reproduce the original smells. Indeed, architectural archives do not contain direct olfactory documentation, and there are technical reasons for this. Unlike the visual form of a building, which can be mechanically photographed or drawn, smell is very difficult to document—it is hard to “objectively” translate into, and communicate through, another medium. Without documentation, archiving becomes a practical and theoretical challenge. In 2009, Nadia Wagner explored this relationship between smell, documentation, and archives in an installation for Cabinet Magazine called a recent addition to the permanent collection. Wagner doused a wall of Cabinet’s exhibition space in Brooklyn with Evernyl, a molecule that was described in Jellinek’s famous lexicon with only one word: dusty. A popular ingredient in men’s colognes, Evernyl is an ersatz oakmoss, a classic natural perfume ingredient that could only be harvested in limited quantities. It was also, by repute, extremely persistent—it could still be smelled, albeit faintly, some five years later. Hence, the name Evernyl (also marketed as Veramoss, and known to chemists as methyl 2,4-dihydroxy-3,6-dimethylbenzoate) came close to suggesting the signature smell of an archive, sans the archive. In 2011, [End Page iii] Sissel Tolaas published a scratch-and-sniff project in Future Anterior that reproduced the smell of a Berlin apartment. Tolaas used a variant of the headspace technique to sample the apartment’s air and analyze its chemical composition. This appeared to move closer in the direction of mechanical documentation and archiving. These projects sparked conversations between us over the years that contained the germ of an idea: to promote scholarly research on the relationship between preservation and smell.

We therefore began this issue of Future Anterior on a supposition that many in the field of preservation, and indeed the art and architecture world as a whole, seemed to share. Namely, that thanks to recent advances in the capture, identification, and synthesis of olfactants, smell was about to belatedly join the ranks of other senses that had been colonized by the media. There is nothing new about the sense of smell having an important symbolic function in social and cultural settings. From religious incense to secular perfumes, from deodorants to synthetic flavors, scents have a long history of being employed for their evocative associations. Within preservation, the powerful connection between smell, memory, and emotions led to the experimental scenting of historic sites in the 1980s. A pioneering example is the Jorvik Viking Center in York, England, designed by John Sunderland, who conceptualized smell as a central element of what he called “time warp experiences.” But this communicative practice has always been interpretive and creative, rather than mechanical. Scents, whether synthetic or natural, are brought into play in ritual or commercial contexts for the associations that they can evoke and the experiences that they might heighten. This interesting, but also frankly archaic, practice was—we supposed—about to be both radically amplified and subverted by the increasing automation of...


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