Close your eyes.
What do you hear? What do you feel?
And what do you smell?
Yesterday as I walked through Kew Gardens the sun broke through the clouds and, with a couple of minutes to spare before my next meeting, I decided to take a moment and sat down on the nearest bench. I closed my eyes.
I heard a robin singing. I heard the distinctive sound of a woodpecker hammering away at a nearby tree. There was a hint of warmth in the sunlight hitting my face. But the most enjoyable part of that minute I spent sitting on the bench was the smell of fresh earth and crisp spring air filling my nostrils.
For me, smell is such an important part of everyday life. When certain aromas surround me they trigger powerful memories. Old varnished wood still fills me with nostalgia for my primary school, where the wood floors and old-fashioned wooden desks gave the classrooms a distinctive smell.
If smell can have such a powerful effect on people then why is it not used more in spaces and museums that communicate science? Last week I tweeted, “Does anyone know of any UK based museums/spaces that have used smell to enhance an exhibit?” The response was limited; the Sexual Nature exhibit at the Natural History Museum apparently used cheetah scent, the Museum on Docklands has a urine-smelling space, and the Jorvik Viking Centre in York has authentic Viking smells (please let me know if I’ve missed anything off!).
These are all unpleasant and pungent smells. It made me wonder whether museums and spaces could learn anything from commercial marketing, which uses more subtle aromas, in order to to help communicate their messages? I’m not talking about obvious scents, such as freshly mown grass, but ones such as a hint of lavender, which shops sometimes use to relax visitors in a space.
This blog suggests that “Harrods is using a range of smells positioned throughout the store. Coconut oil is used in the ladies swimwear department. The smell of freshly morn grass is surprisingly used in the Garden Living department and the luxurious pomegranate in the Luxury Accessories Department.”
I’m not suggesting we try to sell science using scents. I am simply pointing out that aromas are used effectively in marketing, and maybe science communication spaces could learn something about how they are used to aid their communication.