The Art of Scent 1889-2012



of an Exhibit

by Kinneret Kohn

Published on December 27, 2012

  • Description:

    The curators of The Art of Scent describe it as, “The first major museum exhibition exploring the design and aesthetics of Olfactory Art.” The exhibit designers, Diller Scofidio + Renfro had two challenges; to successfully exhibit fragrance and to convey that perfume is an art. Their choices resulted in the ambitious and inventive exhibit on view at The Museum of Arts and Design (MAD), which, while not without flaws, compels museum professionals to consider how to design exhibits for the most emotional and evanescent of the senses.

    When one enters the exhibit from the central bank of elevators, the design of the space immediately signals that this will be unlike most gallery experiences. One may have braced oneself for an overwhelming odor reminiscent of visiting the perfume counter of a department store, but there is only a light floral air to the room. The large and empty space is dimly lit, the open expanse of wooden floors are uninterrupted by displays or seating, and the white walls opposite the entrance are flanked by muted gray-blue walls. The overall feeling is reminiscent of entering a spa retreat, yet the stark white wall hints at the clinical as well.

    Along the white walls are twelve dimples impressed into the wall. The shape seems at once organic and alien, bringing to mind images of the inner-ear but also, unfortunately, urinals. In order to reach the wall a visitor must first encounter the introductory text of the exhibit, which is projected onto the wooden floor. The slowly scrolling text is novel, but not entirely comfortable for viewing. Visitors may turn quickly to the small booklet that accompanies the exhibit, found at the entrance, which contains all the exhibit’s text. There is, however, a certain joy in the irreverence of walking on top of the introductory text as one heads to the dimples or pods.

    To the right of the pods, projected onto the wall, are numbers and wall text for each perfume. The numbers clearly guide a visitor through the exhibit, from left to right, following the chronology of when the perfumes were created. The projected text disappears and reappears, perhaps with the intention of compelling visitors to take a few moments to simply experience the perfumes unmediated. A visitor might also choose to smell a perfume prior to reading its name and making other associations with it. The only drawback is the frustrating experience of the text disappearing midway through a reading, making the accompanying booklet essential.

    The wall label itself is similar to those that usually accompany visual art, furthering the exhibit’s goal of treating perfume as art. Each label includes the name of the perfume, the date it was created, the name of the olfactory artist as well as his country of origin and lifespan. Each also includes a paragraph on the significance of the individual perfume in the context of perfume artistry. Due to how they are written, the wall labels are successful to differing degrees. One is told that perfumes such as Jicky and Chanel N°5 are significant because of the use of synthetics, a somewhat intangible concept. More effectively, L’Interdit is compared to an abstract painting that evokes but does not imitate nature. However, many of the descriptions use phrasing that is intriguing but often confusing, such as this description of Aromatics Elixir as, “Filled with shadows and ornamentation in the European manner.”

    The pods are by far the most enticing aspect of the exhibit. With just enough space for one person at a time, a visitor slowly places their face at the bottom of the rounded space, triggering a dry spray of perfume, like mist at a spa. Since it is not in traditional liquid form, the scent quickly dissipates, but not before hitting a visitor’s nostrils with a medley of odors that in turn bring forth associated memories and emotions. The perfumes are not overly strong, though on a recent visit one man left the room in a sneezing fit, saying only, “I can’t do this.” The pods are spaced apart, allowing for couples or groups to take turns and discuss their experience with each perfume. However, as the perfumes are in order, a visitor can feel obligated to move on from a pod before they are ready. Though it might interfere with the designers’ aesthetics, a few comfortable seating areas placed near the pods might promote further visitor contemplation and discussion. A question that arises is how accessible this portion of the exhibit is for all visitors, including those under four feet tall or using wheelchairs.

    As one reaches the last of the pods, one enters into a smaller room. Along the left wall are five slots, protruding a bit like lips. Visitors are encouraged by brief wall text to take a slip of paper from the slots, each one containing text and scent associated with a stage in creating the perfume Trésor. This offers visitors an understanding of how individual scents are combined to create a final product. Upon a recent visit, a young woman with the title of “Scent Interpreter” greeted visitors in the small room, at turns highlighting the complexities of the perfumes (“The licorice scent you are describing is actually lavender”) and making connections between the perfumes and their artistic significance (“This artist chose to create a romantic perfume in response to the Brutalist art movement popular at that time”). One might have hoped for that kind of clarification and contextualization in the wall labels.

    In the center of the small room is a large, clear table with twelve clear stools along the two long sides. Each stool is set in front of an individual pot of the twelve perfumes along with canisters containing the strips of paper one associates with department store perfume testing. At the head of the table is a tablet-style computer that prompts the visitor to select one of the twelve perfumes and then choose from prewritten adjectives and nouns to create a pair that describes that fragrance. The words are a mix of common descriptions a layman might use (sweet, flower, powder) and those of professionals in the perfume field (opulent, green, luxury). This provides an opportunity for a visitor to consider the meaning of those words as they relate to perfume, and to perhaps make a few of the earlier wall labels more meaningful. Once the visitor has selected two words, the most popular pairings are shown on the screen, and simultaneously a flat-screen television set at the other end of the small room. This opportunity for visitor response is exciting but fleeting, and when the tablet is not in use the television screen goes blank rather than highlight past pairings or previous responses. A suggestion might be for the television screen or the selected pairings to be incorporated into the main room, making visitors’ responses a part of other visitors’ experiences.

    The Art of Scent delivers an exhibit that marries content and design. The first goal, to exhibit fragrance, was successfully achieved by making the interaction with the perfume the highlight of the exhibit. The exhibit design supported this with visually intriguing pods, transmission of perfume through dry spray, and the decision to minimalize all other stimuli. However, the desire to reduce visual clutter resulted in wall labels and introductory text that was difficult to read. In furtherance of the second goal of conveying that perfume is an art, the exhibit designers may have gone too far towards traditional museum exhibition strategies. The wall labels contained too much jargon and did not engage the visitor in his or her own experiences, and the bare space left little room for personal contemplation. As this is an exhibit about the olfactory sense, which is inextricably connected to memory and emotion, perhaps wall labels with prompts or the availability of blank paper and pens would allow visitors to consider and share their immediate experiences with each perfume and react to them as they might a painting or sculpture.

Latest Comments (2)

I'm sorry I missed this exhibition

by Kathleen Mclean - December 29, 2012

but am grateful for your thoughtful review and accompanying images. I’m curious about your overall sense that the exhibition was too sparse (and that the text was difficult to access). Has anyone else out there on ExhibitFiles seen this exhibition? What were your experiences


by Kinneret Kohn - January 03, 2013

… Kathleen. I would love to read other people’s reflections on the exhibit as well. I also wonder if there are other exhibits that in part target the olfactory sense and what delivery methods are used.

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