FRAGRANT MOMENTS IN TIME: Smelling the past in The Hague

2021 . 05 . 14 | written by Karen Marin

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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? Later this year the Mauritshuis museum in the Hague will be hosting a unique exhibit entitled Fleeting – Scents in Colour in which fragrance will enhance the visitors experience. Intrigued by this meeting of art and scent, I contacted the curators and their fragrance partner at IFF to get the full story.

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.”
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 in an 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.” Here is where 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. This was the most challenging. 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.”
One theme in the exhibit pertains to scent, health and hygiene. 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.”
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 sent 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 museum also decided to add a separate olfactory tour of 8 stops which weaves through the permanent collection.

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.”

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.

We look forward to seeing and smelling this exhibit, live and in person! Kudos to the teams for bringing us this marvelous multi-sensory experience.

Now on view until 29 August. To book your ticket, visit:


Jacob van Ruisdael, View of Haarlem with Bleaching Grounds, c.1670-1675. Canvas, 55.5 x 62 cm. Mauritshuis, The Hague
At the Exhibit
Abraham Mignon, Still Life of Flowers and Fruit, c.1670. Canvas, 75 x 63 cm. Mauritshuis, The Hague
Fragrance Diffuser
Pomander, North-Nederlands, c.1620.Silver and Silver-gilt 6 cm. Rijksmuseum Twenthe, Enschede (on loan from the Martens-Mulder Foundation)
At the Exhibit
Scent box
Pieter de Hooch, Interior with Women in front of a Linen Cupboard, 1663. Canvas, 70 x 75.5 cm. Rijksmuseum, Amsterdam (on loan from the City of Amsterdam)