Smell of Heritage: The Historic Book Odour Wheel

‘Some people say that it’s the smell of dying books’ Matija exclaims ‘and I just find that absolutely fascinating’. He is, of course, talking about volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and the smell that they emit when paper degrades. We visited St. Paul's cathedral to learn more about the importance of historical smells from the authors of a paper published in the SpringerOpen Journal, Heritage Science.

‘If you enter a museum or gallery and you look at a painting, you are reduced to a visual experience’ – Matija Strlič.

Matija and Cecilia co-authored a paper earlier this year, looking into the heritage of smell. Together, they have developed an ‘odour wheel’ which documents smell following the analysis of chemicals released from old parchment/paper. After analysing VOCs, they contextualised their information from a sensory analysis of words given by subjects who were asked to smell various historical books.

They both point out that smell is just as important as vision when it comes to cultural experience and it is these aromas that add to the whole experience. Our perception of cultural heritage is moulded largely by all of our senses and as Matija perfectly puts it, ‘on entering the Wren Library, you are hit by this smell of history’.

On arrival, you are immediately transported back to the late 18th century. One only has to take a look around the chamber to feel like they are truly witnessing history as the largely unchanged library still looks exactly how it did in old illustrations.

Taking in the sights, sounds… and smell.

The librarian hands over a book, ‘the book itself is older than the binding’ he states. its tinted pages sit delicately within the 19th-century binding. The book in question, possibly 18th century, exudes a marvellous fragrance, possibly too strong for the most delicate of noses.

Cecilia asks if she needs to wear gloves to hold such a book but is told there’s no need as it’s one of the more ‘recent’ books in the library. This puts into perspective just how old the material in this library is, or how old it could have been had the events of 1666 not happened.

‘A historic place like this is one of the few places where you can smell in context’ – Cecilia Bembibre.

What began as a fire in the bakery of Thomas Farriner, led to the loss of thousands of homes and the devastation of St. Paul’s cathedral that was originally built in 1087. It was the King’s surveyor, Sir Christopher Wren, who rebuilt the domed cathedral as we know today, thus permanently cementing him as one of England’s greatest architects.

Only a year earlier had the great plague had claimed the lives of 100,000 Londoners and although the fire had killed some of the city’s infested rats, sadly, it destroyed the cathedral library’s entire collection. Thankfully, the library was re-stocked over the years by various donors and stands as it is, unchanged since the Georgian era.

Watch the interview to hear more:

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