Seeing People Smelling: an Act of Contemplation

By scent historian Caro Verbeek (

There is something mesmerizing about seeing people smelling. The beauty lies in the mystery of their private experience, because there is no way of telling what they are actually perceiving. But their posture, behavior and facial expression tell stories of their own.

Master distiller Fenny van Wees nosing one of her own gins in utmost concentration. Although Plato and Aristotle, and later Kant and Hegel were convinced smell could not lead to contemplation, we can clearly see the proof of that in the gaze of Van Wees.
Vis-a-vis: Expert in sensory psychology Garmt Dijksterhuis smelling an olfactory work of art by Peter de Cupere. What is also intriguing about seeing people smelling is how they actively position their bodies for an optimised olfactory experience.

Museum director Stefanie Dathe sniffing an olfactory art work by Esther Brakenhoff. In general visitors only look at art for a few seconds. But smell requires active attention and makes people want to stay longer to grasp what they are beholding.
Hannes Wallrafen is a photographer that turned blind later in life. He still has a very lively visual imagination that he said was stirred by the scents of the Battle of Waterloo. He felt like he could see the painting behind him with his nose. Photo by Cathelijne Denekamp.
Members of an audience (odiance) inhaling fragrant fumes during an event at Mediamatic called’ ‘Odorama’. Smelling often makes people close their eyes so they can concentrate on the images that emerge before their mind’s eyes.
Unfortunately I do not know who these people are (please contact me). The image is by Mediamatic photographer Anisa Xhomaqi taken during a scent walk workshop by Klara Ravat. Whereas one participant only SEES what the other one is smelling, the blindfolded participant can only SMELL what her ‘chaperone’ is seeing.
Famous psycho-linguist Asifa Majid smelling a spicy art work by Ernesto Neto at the Tinguely Museum in Basel. One can only imagine the many words she has available to describe what she perceives, inspired by the numerous non-western vocabularies she studied. Most western people lack words to describe scents.
The renowned olfactory artist Peter de Cupere sniffing ‘Text Inhaler’ by Job Koelewijn, another artist that often works with scents. It is almost as if we caught him in the act of doing something very private that usually happens behind closed doors.
Artist duo Esther Brakenhoff and Maarten Schuurman look as if they want to get cozy with the walls. This cardboard installation (part of ‘Shift Operation Project’) was sprayed with cedar wood perfume to negate its material essence and heighten a sense of reality.
Global historian Frans Huijzendveld studying a rosary from up close. Not to look at it, but to smell its essence, which was a reconstruction of a 16th century recipe.
Sometimes smelling forces us to get on all fours. Freud claimed since man took on an erect position, he didn’t need his sense of smell anymore. This is me by the way, smelling a textile art work by Claudy Jongstra.

for more information on smell in museums, scent reconstructions or olfactory history send a message to Odeuropa researcher

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