Research Project Employing the Sense of Smell


Report about Smell Research Project

purpleSTARS Logo showing close ups of peoples noses

Participatory Research: Inclusive Museums, Employing the Sense of Smell

University of Reading funding from its Research England Participatory Research Grant.

Collaborative participatory research project with purpleSTARS

RIX Research and Media

Museum of London (MoL)

Museum Scent Specialist Liam Findlay at Aroma Prime

purpleSTARS are Sensory Technology Art Resource Specialists with and without learning difficulties and disabilities (LDD). purpleSTARS developed out of the Arts & Humanities Research Council funded Sensory Objects research project and were a Research Evaluation Framework impact case study for the University of Reading.

Our research has disrupted the established understanding of inclusive design as a set of ‘adjustments’ which usually include making cosmetic changes to displays for people with LDD and propose in its place a model of inclusivity which is gained through involving people with LDD in the creative and decision-making processes. This methodology interprets ‘public ownership’ of museums in a new and challenging way and we make it happen by actively engaging people with LDD as researchers, curators and creative producers, a method which exemplifies the definition of ‘inclusive research’.

purpleSTARS have recently engaged in a participatory research project with the Museum of London (MOL) creating a sensory display London is the Place for Me, in the museum’s Talking Point Gallery, which is a public Research & Development space where innovative approaches to curation are explored and trailed with the public. This project began in lockdown 2020/1, when purpleSTARS were invited to join the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation community research project ‘Listening to London’. This led to a commission to create a display for MoL, re-interpreting and transforming their oral history archive recordings into a physical display, with sensory objects to touch, see and smell as well as hear. The work feeds into the potential for the purpleSTARS to contribute consultancy and research towards the new museum of London site that is being planned and developed for a move to Smithfield in 2024.

The purpleSTARS team have engaged in a combination of Online (due to continuing C19 safeguarding issues) and In-person meetings to pursue an inclusive and iterative research process. One of the challenges we have noted from feedback at the MoL exhibition is how important the sense of smell can be as a key part of a multi-sensory visitor experience.

We recognise how powerful and immersive the use of smell can be as part of experiencing history and triggering memories. We trialled a french game of smell bingo in one of our research sessions

As part of our research project we have been exploring prototypes of alternative smell experiences and trialling different practical approaches to observe and measure their affect and viability as museum display solutions. Our participatory research includes the curatorial team at Museum of London and Liam Finlay, Aroma Prime consultant and Museum Scent specialist, working alongside the purpleSTARS and participants with different abilities.

PurpleSTARS members have been exploring Museum of London ‘perfumes’ that could relay the smell experiences to visitors more powerfully. purpleSTARS member Ros, proposed that we explore ‘Scratch and Sniff’ (S&S) as an alternative method to contain and share the smells of London from our exhibition London is the Place for Me. Working with consultant from Aroma Prime, Liam Finlay, we discovered Scratch and Sniff was too expensive for our research budget, and also would limit our research to using only four smells. Liam suggested commission bespoke smell cards that perfumiers use to test scents, as a more affordable, flexible and suitable alternative for our research project.

purpleSTARS research meeting with Liam Findlay from Aroma Prime

Following on from developing the Museum of London’s oral history recordings into a multisensory exhibition London is the Place for Me in the Talking Point Gallery during Lockdown, we wanted to explore the power of scent and how smell alters our experience of memory and history. We were also interested in how to make the moment of a sensory experience more intimate and easy to access. We had noticed in our exhibition at London is the Place for Me the installation of smells was problematic and had not been as successful as we hoped. Our wall based smell of a bar of milk chocolate was installed too high for members of our team using wheelchairs to smell. Our smell of popcorn in our cinema display disappeared very quickly so was hard to smell after a few hours and the smell of washing powder installed in a shopping trolly was removed by the Museum Staff due to worries visitors might touch the oil producing the smell. Lockdown was also a problem, when we installed the exhibition the wearing of face masks were mandatory, making any installed scents even harder to smell. The Lockdown also encouraged us to create a 360 version of the exhibition for people to explore at home online. This led use to discuss how we could offer the smells of London is the Place for Me to people at home, while experiencing our virtual 360-degree version of the display.

Two Zoom screens from an online meeting showing members of purpleSTARS group having a research meeting.
purpleSTARS from the Tower Project Adjoa, Ryan, Judith at an online research meeting with Kate

Before we had researched the process and cost we envisaged museum visitors could use simple S&S maps to release the assigned smell as they encounter sound, images and objects in displays. A recent example of this work has been carried out by a bigger project Odeuropa a European research group with expertise in sensory mining and olfactory (smell) heritage currently developing novel methods to collect information about smell from (digital) text and image collections.

Our participatory research work into smell has also led to us exploring ideas and the plans for inclusive sensory experience in the new Museum site with the Museum of London team.

purpleSTARS sniffing smells from Aroma Prime
purpleSTARS sniffing smells from Aroma Prime

We ordered a series of smell oils from Aroma Prime that linked to the oral histories we had listened to as part of the Listening to London project that became our exhibition London is the Place for Me, each person filled in their thoughts about the smells.

A table showing smiley faces to record opinions of different smells
A table showing smiley faces to record opinions of different smells

Our objective is to add to the set of new ideas that our inclusive research team is providing for MoL as it develops its approach to displays in Smithfields, adding to our collaborative partnership for more inclusive Museum displays. We now have a library of smell oils and bespoke smell cards that we can develop and add to future projects.

Card with purpleSTARS webpage link and nose graphic being smelt by a man

Our smell research and library of smells has led us to research how smell could be added to walking tours of London as part of a sensory bag. We developed this idea through a commission to create an inclusive training session event for London Unseen, part of the Mayor of London’s Commission for Diversity in the Public Realm. Click on the image below to read a report of the event.

We also introduced different smells to pupils at The Avenue Special School as part of a project exploring our interconnectedness with plants including trees and fungi Downloading the Woods.

Maya at the Avenue Special School smelling truffle
Maya at the Avenue Special School smelling truffle

We are exploring sound and smell cards as our previous research has confirmed that linking smell with sound is important for more inclusive heritage experience.

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