Odeuropa, an innovative European Union-funded project, aims to help us imagine the sensory journey through different eras and cultures.
Spearheaded by Inger Leemans, a professor of cultural history, Odeuropa focuses on the significant role of smell in European culture. Smell, more than any other sense, connects us deeply with memories and experiences. The essence of pine needles could evoke a myriad of personal memories, from winter sports adventures to festive family gatherings.
Odeuropa: An Encyclopedia of European Smells
At the heart of the project lies the creation of an online database. It’s an encyclopedia of smells, drawing from a wide range of scent-related data from museums, universities, and other heritage institutions.
This comprehensive resource aims to unravel the olfactory cultures and vocabularies of the past. It encompasses a diverse spectrum, from perfumes used to combat diseases to the distinct odors of industrialization captured in historical literature and paintings.
Odeuropa’s team utilizes artificial intelligence to identify and analyze references to smells from historical texts and images, spanning from the 16th to the early 20th century. The project’s ambition is to rediscover Europe’s key scents and reintroduce them to the public.
Launched in November 2020, it has made significant progress, culminating in the release of the Smell Explorer search engine and the Encyclopedia of Smell History and Heritage. These tools provide insights into how past generations described, depicted, and experienced various smells.
Collaboration and Technology in Olfactory Research
Odeuropa’s team comprises experts in various fields, including olfactory storytelling and A.I. technology. Their combined efforts focus on capturing ‘smell events’ – specific occasions, circumstances, and places as described by historical witnesses.
This collaboration is crucial for providing resources to scholars and students, aiding them in exploring the ephemeral evidence of the past through scents.
Evan Kutzler, a U.S. historian, emphasizes the importance of this approach in historical research, noting its ability to reveal otherwise elusive aspects of our history.
The Odeuropa project goes beyond academic research. It opens up a new dimension in experiencing history, making it more immersive and engaging for the public. By bringing historical scents to life, the project enhances the impact of digital collections in museums and online platforms. It allows individuals to connect with history in a unique and personal way, deepening their understanding and appreciation of different cultures and eras.
The Future of Odeuropa and Historical Research
As Odeuropa continues to evolve, it sets a precedent for incorporating sensory experiences into historical research and education. It demonstrates the potential of using innovative technologies like artificial intelligence in the humanities. The project’s success could inspire similar initiatives, leading to a more multi-sensory and inclusive approach to learning and experiencing history.