FRAGRANT MOMENTS IN TIME: Smelling the past in The Hague

2021 . 08 . 06 | written by Karen Marin

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Esxence 2022

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Fragrance museums


What does it take to create a multi-sensory event? How is it conceived and what considerations need to be taken into account? This summer the Mauritshuis museum in the Hague is hosting a unique exhibit entitled Fleeting – Scents in Colour in which fragrance enhances the visitors experience. Intrigued by this meeting of art and scent, I contacted the curators and their fragrance partner at International Flavors & Fragrances (IFF) to get the full story, and as soon as European borders opened up again, I booked a trip to the Netherlands to check it out for myself.


Ariane van Suchtelen, curator of seventeenth-century Dutch paintings at the Mauritshuis in The Hague, told me she started thinking about this project nearly 2 &1/2 years ago. “I was very interested in the phenomenon of historical sensation which happens when you feel connected to the past by looking at paintings that are taken from daily life. This works well with smell which is connected to our emotions and memories. It seemed very interesting to explore our sense of smell as a theme in art from a number of perspectives including the historical, as we do in the exhibition, and also the cultural, by finding scents from the past. It’s a different way of approaching art in a museum, not by just looking.”

The first room of the exhibit is dedicated to prints and paintings in which Smell is depicted as one of the Five Senses. We see engravings in which women, or allegorical figures, are smelling flowers followed by the polar opposite in which foul odors take the form of children defecating or having their bottom wiped. Dogs frequently have a presence in these works since they are recognized for their keen sense of smell, and even a civet cat* is curled up at a woman’s feet in Allegory of Smell by Dutch masters Jan Brueghel and Peter Paul Rubens. The exhibit then moves through a series of rooms where scent takes center stage in portrayals of daily life ranging from the indoors and the outdoors, to the role of smell in health, to the discovery of new elements coming from the trade route, then ending with scent and religion.

Jan Saenredam, Smell, Rijksmuseum
Allegory of Smell

As Ms van Suchtelen explained, creating the exhibit began by identifying themes, then exploring different subjects and story lines before finally thinking of smells that could enhance the viewing experience. “We put the works of art first then thought about the smells that are represented in them. We were looking at ways to reconstruct those scents so they could be experienced by the viewers to add another dimension to the experience, because then it’s very historically rooted.”


And here is where IFF comes in: to bring that extra dimension - the scent dimension - into the museum context. Bernardo Fleming, Scent Designer at IFF, told me that for this project he sees his role as “translating the request from an artistic, conceptual and technical point of view into a creative brief so our perfumers can work on the projects.” He was confronted with a few unprecedented requests: recreating the smell of 17th century canals and the odor of a beached whale. In general, perfumers are tasked with creating beautiful fragrances that delight people, so how do they do the reverse?

First of all Mr. Fleming wanted to understand the context and the story that needed to be told. “Here you have a beautiful painting, but it didn’t smell nice there. You need to bring many narratives together: the dampness of the city, the latrines, the horse manure, the wood – but we wanted to bring in the scent of Linden trees because they were planted to counteract the smells of the canals. So all the smells had to come together into a composition that overall is coherent with the artwork and that it is not pleasant in a deliberate way – it has to tell the story in the painting.” And so the perfumers had to take a drastic departure from their usual way of creating. He continued, “My role was to guide them into this uncommon and unfamiliar territory. I had to challenge the perfumers to work with ingredients that in their day to day they do not work with or use these material and technologies in very different ways. Which was interesting for them from a creative standpoint. Think of cleaning products – we know there is a malodor that we want them to mask or counteract but in the context of this exhibition we needed to use the malodors as noticeable parts of the creation. The unconventional use of materials and fragrance technologies was a creative challenge, which is why I really like this project, because it takes perfumers to apply their skills and craft into completely unexplored territories. And even in levels of the materials because, scatole**, yes they use it, but in very miniscule amounts. Here they had to overdose this material to bring the smell of Amsterdam sewage – so there is a learning on how the material behaves using levels they aren’t used to.” For another artwork, which depicts a beached whale, the scent created prompted additional new learnings. He recalls, “We initially created a scent that had marine and ozone notes, but the curators wanted a more obvious emphasis on the smell of ambergris*** so we had to redefine the creative intent of this scent and went directly into this olfactive direction highlighting this material.”

Smelling the Canals
Jan Saenredam, Stranded whale at Beverwijk, Rijksmuseum

Indeed, when I found myself in front of these two artworks I wasn’t sure what to expect. As I gingerly stepped on the scent diffuser in front of Jan van der Heyden’s canal view, I inhaled a scent that was far less unpleasant than some I’ve come across in the streets of Paris. A subtle fresh note (perhaps coming from the linden trees?) offset any nastiness. Moving over to the engraving of Beached Whale at Beverwijk, I was intrigued by the earthy warmth of the ambergris scent, consistent with the fact that I have always liked certain fragrances that historically contained this ingredient.


The theme of scent and its relationship to health and hygiene was particularly interesting to me, especially now as we continue to grapple with a pandemic. What role did scent play hundreds of years ago? People in the 17th century believed malodorous smells could be harmful, hence the use of pomanders. This apple-shaped object, which could be carried or worn on the body, held fragrant herbs or aromatics thought to ward off illness and disease. Lizzie Marx, research and exhibition assistant, poured through recipe books from the period, many in Italian, French or Dutch translations of the originals, to recreate the smell of what could have been inside the pomander, inspired by actual recipes that existed at the time. I found advice on how to chase away pests, how to prepare and preserve food, how to make different fragrances. Sometimes the ingredients were in Latin. We had to convert to current measuring systems, and then we passed it on to IFF who did an amazing job of reconstructing these smells. And then they made it applicable for a museum space to unite the smells in the best possible way with a work of art.”

Mr. Fleming described the complexity of making the scent. “For the pomander, it was a fascinating exercise from a creative point of view. We had to think about the winter pomander and the summer pomander, we had the ingredients from recipes, we understood the purpose and how it would be used, so we knew we had to have cinnamon, civet, saffron, camphor, musk. Our perfumer created a beautiful well rounded fragrance, but it had to be more raw because the scent for the exhibition had to smell as if it was a combination of the elements in the original recipe and not a gorgeous composition. We had to ‘unbeautify’ a fragrance to make it more realistic to what it needed to represent.”


Putting scent into an enclosed space requires plenty of forethought. Ms van Suchtelen was conscious to select artworks throughout the exhibit to avoid sensory overload in any corner of the museum. In addition to those previously mentioned, one stop is in front of a painting of a grocer’s shop, where nutmeg, cloves, and mace – all important elements of Dutch trade – will take the viewer on a nostalgic, olfactory trip. The scents recreated lean more towards pleasant with a few unpleasant ones to be historically accurate but not to alienate any visitors. “People have an intense dislike for bad smells which can have such a strong emotional effect.” In fact, for me the scent of A Grocer’s Shop smelled of a clove studded orange and made me crave a hot mulled wine on a rainy July day!

Mr. Fleming went into more detail about the process of bringing fragrance into the exhibit. “Conceptually, it could be great, but if the execution isn’t properly incorporated into the experience it becomes a distraction rather than an enhancement. We had to know what delivery system would be used and how many scents there would be, because people who are not trained to smell will easily get confused after smelling about four of five scents.” When asked about the fragrance diffusers he commented that “it is a complex and technical matter. You have to have a secure system that works properly during the entire exhibition, you have to be sure it doesn’t fade away after a week, but also that it doesn’t overpower. And then with Covid restrictions it had to become a touchless interface.” The final unit is a foot activated funnel that releases scent on demand by means of dry dispersion technology which keeps the scent very local so it does not drift into adjacent spaces, thus avoiding smell contamination. The execution worked brilliantly as there were no lingering smells in the exhibit rooms, nor did the simple-to-activate diffusers waft scent beyond the radius of the user. Mission accomplished on all fronts.

Portrait of Maria Schuurmann, Unknown Artist, Rijksmuseum


Certainly, the art is at the center of the exhibit but adding scent gives visitors a new and unexpected way of making connections, and it makes the entire experience more memorable. It also captures the viewers’ attention. Mr. Fleming shared a personal memory with me. “I brought my 9-year-old daughter and the kids from her school to an exhibit with scent. There was one kid who was like me when I was young: always getting into trouble, misbehaving. But for the full hour of the tour he was extremely attentive and engaged…this can generate a different behavior when you connect to artwork through the nose. You make it accessible to people who normally aren’t interested. I think it opens a completely new dimension to how people experience art.”

I have to concur with Mr Fleming. I went to the exhibit with a friend who is not in the fragrance industry and I think the scent dimension was intriguing and thought provoking for her. As we trained back to Amsterdam she had some questions and observations that may not have come up after a typical museum visit. Could life really have smelled like that? Do you think they toned it down a bit? Doesn’t ambergris really smell worse? What effect does it have in perfumery? Scent opened the door to conversations we might not otherwise have had. In fact I brought up the mission of Odeuropa, the organization that is creating an olfactory archive documenting smells from the 1600’s to the early 20th Century in Europe. When I mentioned that some smells are disappearing from the modern world, such as the smell of an old book or a library (since people read on Kindle), my friend, who is a published author, immediately saw the value.

Run, don’t walk, to the Mauritshuis before the exhibit ends, leaving in its wake a fleeting trace of spice, linden and myrrh. Kudos to the teams for bringing us this marvelous multi-sensory experience and special thanks to Hedwig Wösten for giving us a guided tour.

Until 29 August 2021


For those who can’t make it to the exhibit, or for those who wish to experience it again at home, the museum has created an interactive discovery scent box which includes 4 scents from the exhibit along with access to a digital tour hosted by Ms van Suchtelen and journalist, Joël Broekaert.



*Civet cats were the source of an ingredient taken from their anal gland which gave a powdery, velvety quality to fragrances.

**Scatole is an ingredient used in perfumery that can smell of fecal matter, but in miniscule amounts may give the effect of an overmature flower.

***Ambergris imparted a warm, ambery, musky, vanillic facet to fragrances.