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From London to Paris: A Journey of The Scents

'Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent' at Somerset House. Photograph by Peter MacDiarmid

After the virtual reality show ‘Mat Collishaw: Thresholds’, Somerset House is now hosting ‘Perfume’: another ambitious exhibition, but this time for our noses. Through several multi-sensory installations, the show explores contemporary perfume with a selection of ten fragrances from the last twenty years. ‘Perfume’ challenges our senses and memory – inviting us to jot down what we think the components of the scents might be – and presents a provocative selection of perfumes which are not always widely known to the public. One of the scents is even puzzling, and you’ll see why at the end of the display.

The fragrance samples vary from very mild to very strong – some of us might not smell them all, so make sure to take a break between each inhalation. Likewise, try not to spend too long in the gallery, or else you might get a headache. The experience is definitely worth a try though, even just to test your sense of smell, something most of us rarely do in our daily lives.

Hooked on the olfactory journey, I decided to investigate perfumes further at the Grand Musée du Parfum, Paris. Offering a popularised account of the making, uses and perceptions of fragrances, this brand-new museum opened in December 2016 is dedicated to perfumers’ art. The permanent display starts with a broad review of the history of perfume: thanks to ancestral materials, like myrrh and musk, as well as reconstructions of scents from archives, we travel from ancient Egypt to a nineteenth-century Parisian perfume shop, with the partial reconstruction of the Houbigant parfumerie. The display also notes the influence on perfume production of historical figures such as Cleopatra, Catherine de’ Medici, Louis XIV and Marie Antoinette.

The highlight of the Parisian museum of perfume lies on the floors above though, as you enter a white and spacious gallery on the chemistry behind the sense of smell. Thanks to refined and interactive installations, the visitors go through a sensory immersion to understand how the sense of smell works, and how we identify scents by the memories we attach to them – the very mechanism that corresponds to the French expression ‘une madeleine de Proust’!

Le Grand Musée du Parfum: La Collection des Matières Premières. © Paris Byzance Paradise Harvey & John

The museum also showcases a wonderful tree of various rose essences and twenty-five iconic raw materials used for the perfumers’ creations in an installation called ‘the collection of raw materials’, by the Brighton-based studio Harvey & John. After smelling the perfume spheres, they each tell the story of the raw material they contain. While we might probably recognise ‘lavender’ or ‘absolut vanilla’, some synthetic molecules will certainly seem unusual to many of us – although we have likely smelled them before. Ethyl-maltol for example does not exist in nature and has been created as an artificial flavouring for sweet treats. It smells like toffee or sugared nuts, and has been recently introduced in perfumery to give a sweet touch to our scents.

Before you leave the museum, make sure to pop by the museum store where you can learn more about the historical relation between glove-making and perfume manufactures in France, and, of course, indulge your nose with many more scents. Have a nice olfactory journey!

‘Perfume, a sensory Journey through contemporary scent’ is on display in the East Wing Galleries at Somerset House, London. The exhibition runs until 23 September 2017.

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