Historians who want to know what a place looked like 100 years ago can refer to photographs. If they’re lucky, they might even find voice recordings that capture the sounds of that environment during a certain time. But determining what a room smelled like in an earlier era isn’t so straightforward. That hasn’t stopped researchers at New York City's Morgan Library & Museum from attempting to document the aromas that filled the institution’s John Pierpont Morgan Library when it first opened in 1906.
As Hyperallergic reports, an experimental historic preservation class from the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning, and Preservation (GSAPP) has embarked on an olfactory journey through time. Their mission: fabricating a scent profile of what the library might have smelled like 110 years ago.
"I try to get students to rethink how we can preserve objects in a creative way that reengages people with those objects," professor Jorge Otero-Pailos, who leads the project with Morgan Library & Museum curator Christine Nelson, told Hyperallergic. "In architecture school, we teach everything about space, light, and color of spaces, somehow everything but the smell." Also helping with the program are Otero-Pailos’s co-instructor, Andreas Keller, master perfumer Carlos Benaim, and organic chemist Subha Patel.
To collect the historic scents, students use something called "headspace technology." They place a glass bell on the pages of a 100-year-old book and, using a wax needle, are able to sample the manuscript's chemical aura without causing damage.
Anyone who’s flipped through the pages of an old book knows that distinct scent. A team of chemists once compared it to "a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness." A more accurate description would be a cocktail of acetic acid, benzaldehyde, butanol, furfural, octanal, and methoxyphenyloxime. But old books don't always smell exactly alike; the GSAPP group has studied the differences between more than 1500 of them.
Musty book smell isn’t the only scent going into their roundup. They’ve also analyzed the museum’s fireplace, its 16th-century tapestry, and an old box of cigars that belonged to J.P. Morgan himself. Once the class ends, Otero-Pailos plans to continue the project, eventually turning it into a sensory art installation that transports the fragrance of the library back to 1906.