Preserving Smell: How and Why? – Isabel Lauterjung

When you think of all the records and materials that can be held by archives, I think we can safely assume that smell would be quite low down on the list of things you’d consider. It was to me as well, until I started doing some general reading to figure out what I wanted to write about for my Master’s dissertation in Information Management and Preservation (University of Glasgow). Tucked away in a footnote, I came across the term ‘Smell Archive’ in relation to the Stasi’s (State Security Ministry) activities in former East Germany, and I was immediately certain: I’d found my topic. Is smell something that should be considered in preservation and recordkeeping? If so, how would that even work? Is it simply a characteristic of an actual record? These all became questions that I wanted to find the answer to, although (spoiler alert) some of them remained without a definitive solution.

Even though there are so many options to look at smell in archives, I settled on three case studies from the areas of perfumery, law enforcement, and architecture; the variety of these truly shows that smell is infused (pardon the pun) in so many areas of life.

Looking at the perfume archive L’Osmothèque in Paris, I got to know perfume history and its importance as preserving the profession and product is what the archive is all about. They have fairly detailed policy documents available online, so I could learn more about their acquisitions and cataloguing process – how and from whom they are able to get the fragrances for their archive, and how they describe and categorise them. When reading up on prominent archival theories and standards, you will likely encounter terms such as ‘authenticity’, ‘uniqueness’, as well as one of the most prominent standards: ISAD(G) (International Standard of Archival Description (General)). Naturally, these are almost exclusively associated with ‘traditional’ records, e.g. paper materials. Surprisingly however, much of how the archive operates with smells seems to mirror the handling of traditional materials. The use of formulae to recreate fragrances for preservation purposes does, however, question concepts like authenticity in copies, so it remains a multi-faceted area to navigate.

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The second case study I looked at was the catalyst for this dissertation in a way: the Stasi ‘Smell Archive’, which could open up discussions on the general ethical implications of preserving human odour. In former East Germany, the State Security Ministry collected, often covertly and without the person’s consent, smell samples to help train dogs’ tracking skills in political demonstrations or similar public settings. These samples were collected on yellow cloths and stored in airtight, labelled jars, with accompanying paperwork for each jar (see picture). Shortly before German reunification in 1989/1990, the Stasi attempted to destroy a large amount of their records – however, some of the smell samples survived. Post-reunification, the work of the Federal Commissioner of the Former Stasi Archives (BStU) has been integral to providing access to the files, in particular the ‘affected persons’ files. A spokeswoman of the BStU did inform me that they were considered as having lost their evidential value (in a law enforcement context) and that a large part of them were destroyed. It would have been incredibly interesting to find out whether the smell samples were considered part of these victim files and whether the people whose samples were taken knew of them after the fact or were informed about their destruction. While time constraints meant that I could not necessarily get answers on this, the Runde-Ecke Museum in Leipzig, which showcases this part of German history and a large display of these sample jars, is still on my to-do list for a post-Covid trip.

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Lastly, I examined how smell documentation and awareness in architectural archives could help preservation efforts. The ‘Olfactory Reconstruction’ by Jorge Otero-Pailos offered a fascinating insight into the processes behind his work, his engagement with architectural archives to analyse the building materials, as well as with fragrance archives to pinpoint which smells were needed to complement his preservation efforts. He ended up creating so-called olfactory (smell-related) profiles for what the house would have smelled like newly built, during the 1950s with men’s signature colognes, and after decades of being the home of a smoker. Generally, there’s been more and more efforts in the art and science world to archive smells, to document them and to preserve them for heritage purposes. It will be fascinating to see in the future how the incorporation of smells in preservation of historic buildings and structures can aid people’s engagement with the past.

If you’re keen on learning more about sensory heritage and smells of the past, do check out Odeuropa’s or Smell of Heritage’s work, which are incredible collaborative research initiatives currently underway.

Isabel Lauterjung, recent graduate of the University of Glasgow

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