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