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The Smell Archivist: Kate McLean

History. You can trace it through words and books and poetry, you can use photographs, paintings, and even sounds to learn more about a time that came before. But can you tell anything about the past from the smell of a place? Kate McLean, sensory designer, senior lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University and smell archivist, thinks so. 

Kate is in the business of maps - but not like any you’ve ever seen before. These maps are based on the perfumes and pongs, whiffs and wafts that help to define an area. Whether it’s a hint of the herring market in Amsterdam, or a wave of the waterside in Whitstable - Kate believes there’s a lot to be gleaned from the smells we perceive in a place.

She explains: “There are so many smells that are very different in cities around the world, and from them you get a snapshot of a particular place in a moment of time.”

Kate McLean Smell map Singapore

To capture that moment, and create her unique scent maps, Kate conducts walks with a difference; enlisting groups of 10 to 200 locals to explore urban areas using their noses. A task they’ve likely never done before. This sensory stroll allows walkers to perceive the cities and towns they know and love in a new way - scribbling down information about the smells they detect en route

From this information, collected from the personal smell data from each walker, Kate creates a Scent Map - a way to capture the specific scent of the area in a given time period. Kate’s maps aren’t wholly concerned with the sources of smell however, but with the aura and ambiance that smells are able to contribute to their environments.

She says: “Physiologically and genetically it is extremely unlikely that any of us will ever experience smell in the same way. We have different genetic make-ups and predispositions. The work tries not to reduce the data down to the smell of a single molecule. It’s more about the human experience of the smellscape as witnessed by humans themselves.”

Kate uses the example of a smell impression that was noted down multiple times during a large scent walk in Singapore. The smell was described as “a hard life” and covered a multitude of individual scents mingling together and giving a very distinct impression.

She explains: “The language I use in the smell maps is very varied and very deliberately so. It comes from the people who have been on the smell walks. Some of it is a lot more descriptive and covers a multitude of smells.

“I ask that the people who do the walks are actually local because they know their environment and they are better at describing what they are smelling. Really I’m the archivist or the recorder of those smells - the person who then tries to communicate them to other people and cultures.”

The smells people identify can be widely different, but Kate collates them in relation to each city’s physical characteristics. This allows her an in depth insight into how people are experiencing the smells during the walks - the smells they ignore, the ones they place more emphasis on, and the background, omnipresent odours.

Kate puts the smells into broadly similar groups and assigns them a colour. In Singapore, roti and curry smells were orange; shisha smells, lilac; salt and sea water, blue; jasmine, yellow; flowers and perfume, pink; spicy, hot smells, orange; and humidity, grey. She then plots the smells onto the map - taking into account wind direction, local businesses and activities, as well as the potency of the specific whiff - creating a smellscape of the entire city.

An interesting example is that of Amsterdam, a city you may assume would smell strongly of one thing in particular...

“People expect Amsterdam to smell primarily of cannabis. Cannabis has a strong smell, but it only featured in a couple of neighbourhoods and missed inclusion in the smellscape.

“Instead, spring 2013 in Amsterdam revealed an abundance of the warm, sugary, powdery sweetness of waffles. Oriental spices emanated from Asian and Surinamese restaurants and supermarkets, pickled herring from the herring stands and markets – a link to one of the city’s key historical industries. Old books were detected in basement doorways and laundry aromas drifted up into the streets from Amsterdam’s many house hotels.”

Kate’s artwork is able to provide a fleeting snapshot of Amsterdam; documenting the ambiance, the businesses, trends and activities of the Dutch capital in the 21st century. In lieu of smell-o-vision, sensory maps are the perfect way give some permanence to what is, by nature, a fragmentary and episodic sense.

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