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Caro Verbeek: What Can The Scents Of The Past Tell Us About Our History?

Jan 15, 2021
Originally published on May 21, 2021 7:58 am

Part 3 of the TED Radio Hour episode Breathe

Each day, we breathe about 22,000 times--and all that time we smell. Scent historian Caro Verbeek recreates scents of the past. She says, just like music and art, smell is a part of our heritage.

About Caro Verbeek

Caro Verbeek is an embedded researcher of olfactory heritage at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, the Rijksmuseum and International Flavours & Fragrances. She creates olfactory tours and interventions for museums.

Verbeek teaches the course 'The Other Senses' at the Royal Academy of Arts The Hague and is the curator in chief of the olfactory culture program 'Odorama' at Mediamatic Amsterdam. She is also an advisor for immaterial heritage projects at Mondriaan Fonds.

She received her M.A. in curatorial studies at VU Amsterdam University and her M.A. in art history at the University of Amsterdam.

This segment of TED Radio Hour was produced by Maria Paz GutiƩrrez and edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour. You can follow us on Twitter @TEDRadioHour and email us at TEDRadio@npr.org.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


It's the TED Radio Hour from NPR. I'm Manoush Zomorodi. On the show today - breath. And something else we do unconsciously every single time we take a breath...


ZOMORODI: ...We smell.


CARO VERBEEK: We breathe about 22,000 per 24 hours. And all that time, we smell.

ZOMORODI: This is Caro Verbeek.

VERBEEK: And I'm an art and scent historian. And I research lost scents, try to recreate them and then exhibit those smells.

ZOMORODI: In case you missed that, Caro is a scent historian.


ZOMORODI: She works with other historians and artists and perfumers to bring smells to museums, the kind of smells that define pivotal moments in history.

VERBEEK: So one of the smells that we introduced in the museum, in the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, was the smell of the Battle of Waterloo.


ZOMORODI: The Battle of Waterloo in 1815, when Napoleon Bonaparte lost to the British and their allies. There's a famous 200-year-old painting of the battle by Jan Willem Pieneman. And in 2017, Caro reconstructed the smells characterized in Pieneman's painting.


VERBEEK: So imagine this huge painting, 8 by 5 meters. Above, you see very dark, dramatic clouds because it was very rainy during the Battle of Waterloo.


VERBEEK: You will also see thousands of tiny soldiers, thousands of horses, weapons, some French captives, even some dead soldiers lying in the mud, all in the foreground.


VERBEEK: And in the middle, center stage, General Wellington. And Wellington was English, and he was victorious. So he's sitting there on this horse looking grand.


VERBEEK: So together with the perfumer, we decided to translate this painting into a composition, a smell composition, because we often forget that history is all about smells. And particularly, wars were incredibly smelly.

ZOMORODI: So if I were visiting the museum when this exhibit was on, what was the experience like?

VERBEEK: So if you were present, you immediately would have noticed the smell of horses, but also of anxiety, the smell of fear, gunpowder, leather. And because it was raining, you would have smelled moist earth and grass. And last but not least - Napoleon's perfume. And it might smell - I don't know about your grandmother, but my grandmother wore the same perfume as Napoleon, as did many of our grandmothers, because it is now known as 4711 Eau de Cologne. Do you know this?

ZOMORODI: It's the one with the turquoise circle on it?

VERBEEK: Yeah, yeah. And this cologne worn by Napoleon could be described as incredibly fresh and slightly sour and sweet because there were citrus fruits in there, like bergamot and lemon, but also flowers and rosemary.

ZOMORODI: I do know that one. I hate that smell.

VERBEEK: (Laughter) Napoleon loved that smell because he had a Proustian memory of his days that he was in power, that he was ruling Europe. So to him, that was a very important smell. But it was also a scent used by many soldiers in the 18th and 19th century because it helped them to mask and fight the evil smells of war because war is incredibly stinky. You need to do something to protect yourself.

ZOMORODI: And when you say war is stinky, not just because they weren't bathing very often but because of, I'm assuming, injury and death.

VERBEEK: Yeah, that's a good question. And here, of course, you want to be, historically, as accurate as possible. But you also have to take into account that you're in a museum.


VERBEEK: This smell is the only scent that is innately foul. So people would feel so sick - we would have to position buckets below the painting if we would have done this.

ZOMORODI: (Laughter).

VERBEEK: So, no, we did not include this horrible smell. And that's why we also decided to connect it to Napoleon fleeing the battlefield. So he's already distancing himself from this horrible, putrid scent. And instead, you smell his perfume, the smell of fear, the moist earth, some gunpowder and some leather. And what happened was quite remarkable. I did not foresee this. Some people actually said that when they started smelling and looking at the painting simultaneously, they felt as though they were in the painting instead of just looking at it from a distance. One person even reported that she saw the horses move because it became so much more realistic because of the smell.


VERBEEK: So history can tell us a lot about smells, but sometimes smells can also tell us a lot about history.

ZOMORODI: Caro Verbeek continues from the TED stage.


VERBEEK: As I smell historian, I stick my nose into various things, things you cannot even imagine. I smell mummies. Here, I'm smelling an ancient, fragrant piece of jewelry. I've been to antique apothecary cabinets. And I've also smelled perfumed wigs.

In the 18th century, the wealthy perfumed their wigs. The Amsterdam Museum has a wig of an 18th-century Amsterdam mayor, and I wanted to smell - if I could figure out - which perfumes they might have used. So I went there. I was a bit hesitant at first because, of course, it's very intimate. It's something someone wore close to his skin. But I bent over, used both nostrils, inhaled - no perfume, but I did smell something else. I smelled this animal. This wig was clearly made of horsehair.

And the smell of horses always takes me back to my childhood because I used to do horseback riding. And I bet you all know this feeling. You enter a room, you smell something, suddenly you're back at your grandparents' house. Smell is apparently the strongest inducer of memories - of early memories.


VERBEEK: Horses have this sour, sweet, acrid smell - a very warm smell. Once I inhaled that smell, I just - I couldn't be prepared for what happened. I felt emotional. I felt as though I was a child again. I was transported back in time immediately.

ZOMORODI: It's like olfactory deja vu in some ways.

VERBEEK: Yeah, it's amazing. That's another reason why I love studying smells and actually smelling. Because there's a big difference between thinking about a smell and actually smelling something. Because you can only have this Proustian memory if you are actually smelling a substance from your own past.


VERBEEK: So if you liked horseback riding as a child and you would smell a horse now or even when you're in your 80s, you would immediately be transported back in time. That it doesn't just make you think about that period in your early life, it makes you feel as though you are reliving it.

And why it's so mind-blowing to smell something from the past and so emotional - that's more important - is because in our brains, the olfactory bulb or our smell brain, so to say, is connected to our emotional brain or the amygdala.


VERBEEK: This, again, is connected to our brain stem, where we regulate memory. So memory, smell and emotion are one and the same.

ZOMORODI: Can you tell me - you know, I assume that you must have a very keen sense of smell. Do you have a process by which you inhale a scent?

VERBEEK: Well, they say that you can use the sniffing technique - so short, fast inhalations, a bit like a dog (sniffing) - that can help (sniffing). And what is also very important is to use both nostrils. Many of us are not aware of the fact that one nostril actually perceives something different than the other.

ZOMORODI: No, I did not know that. My nostrils are not equal in power (laughter)?

VERBEEK: No, no one's nostrils are equal in power. I don't know if you have anything - fragrance - around you. You can even test it.

ZOMORODI: I do. I have a coffee. Hang on. OK. Ready.

VERBEEK: So you close one nostril - it doesn't matter which one - and then you inhale the coffee.

ZOMORODI: (Inhaling) OK.

VERBEEK: And then you simply close your other nostril and inhale the coffee again.

ZOMORODI: (Inhaling) Whoa. It was, like, complimentary smells, but not the same.

VERBEEK: Yeah, exactly. Because those two smells from both of your nostrils, they produce the smell of coffee as we know it. But of course, we never close one nostril.

ZOMORODI: That is so weird. It was like hearing the melody in one nostril and the - sort of the harmony in the other. And hearing the two separate tracks and then bringing them together, you got the full song.

VERBEEK: Yeah. I like that.


VERBEEK: We have two eyes, and we have two ears to perceive ambiently. But why do you think we have two nostrils? I'll explain why. There's a constant fast airflow in one of your nostrils and a slow one in the other because some molecules are only detectable in slow or fast airflows. So in order to perceive everything, you have to use both nostrils to smell three-dimensionally. And here it comes. Every three hours, this changes. Your nostrils take shifts.

ZOMORODI: Wait, what? My nostrils swap smelling duties every three hours?

VERBEEK: Yeah. It's so fabulous (laughter).

ZOMORODI: So why do you think it's important that we give more thought and attention to smell? Why do you think that's important?

VERBEEK: Well, smell and sense, just like paintings and music, are part of our heritage. It's a different doorway - an even more emotional and direct doorway - to the past. And smell is a really good conversation starter. So as soon as you bring in smells, people start talking, start discussing in a very open way. And I think this is important not just the smelling itself, but that what it leads to - to beautiful discussions about the way we perceive the world.

ZOMORODI: The other thing that strikes me is you can't avoid smelling because, as you said, you have to breathe 22,000 times a day. So there is no choice but to smell as you breathe, right?

VERBEEK: Yeah. So why not make it more interesting, right? And maybe connect it to who you are in the world in relation to other people, in other cultures and our history.


ZOMORODI: That's Caro Verbeek. She's an art and scent historian at the Vrije University Amsterdam and the Rijksmuseum, where she reconstructs Europe's lost smells. You can hear her talk at ted.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.