UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage


Spotlight on PhD student Cecilia Bembibre

1 May 2020

We talked to Cecilia about her experience studying a PhD on the 'Smell of Heritage'

Smells of heritage research

You're currently writing your thesis on the 'Smell of Heritage' - very intriguing - could you tell us a bit more about it?

My work explores on the role of smells and olfaction in our experience of cultural heritage, understanding the huge impact that the smells we perceive every day have on our thoughts, feelings and behaviour. 

In addition, there are many smells that we collectively value, because they are associated with a person or place we consider important, or we attribute meaning to them through our experience. For example, the smell of old books and historic libraries. These smells are not being studied and preserved for the future as other aspects of intangible heritage. Therefore, I developed the first framework to identify, analyse and preserve smells with cultural significance. This includes scientific techniques to sample and characterise the volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are responsible for a smell, such as headspace solid phase microextraction (HS-SPME) and gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC/MS). In order to document the smell, I also look at the human experience of it, conducting sensory evaluations with participants to record the way we describe smell character, intensity and pleasantness. The resulting chemical and sensory data is combined into a document which preserves our olfactory heritage.

And what was your background before deciding to take on a PhD?

This project follows up my undergraduate dissertation on Smell and Communication at the University of Buenos Aires. Before joining UCL ISH, I built a career in cultural journalism and publishing working for newspapers, magazines and publishing houses internationally, developing many transferrable skills that prove valuable as an academic researcher.

A PhD project is a massive undertaking, could you tell us what has been the biggest challenge of your PhD?

The holistic approach of the project required me to acquire a working knowledge of complex analytical chemistry and sensory techniques in a relatively short time. Even with the support of the ISH Heritage Science Lab team and an industry partner specialised in odour analysis (Odournet), it was sometimes challenging to interpret the information in a novel context. The many types of data I worked with was another challenge that required many creative solutions.

Moving back to the positives, what has been your biggest success of your PhD?

Working within Heritage Science allowed me to have a cross-disciplinary approach to the research questions, working at the intersection of heritage, chemistry, anthropology and sensory science. Also, partnering with Knole, a historic house under The National Trust care, offered many opportunities to interact with visitors and gain an understanding of their experience with smells. Finally, the first research paper we published led to over 300 articles in the international press. This revealed how relevant this unexplored aspect of heritage is to many communities and encouraged us to keep working! 

We'd like to thank Cecilia for sharing her experience with us and wish her all the best with her project.

Further Information

Thesis title: Smell of Heritage (www.smellofheritage.org)

Supervisors: Prof. Matija Strlic, Prof. Susanne Kuechler (UCL Anthropology)

Funding: This project was funded by UK EPSRC Centre for Doctoral Training in Science and Engineering in Art, Heritage and Archaeology (SEAHA) and by the National Trust

•    Bembibre, C; Strlič, M; (2017) Smell of heritage: a framework for the identification, analysis and archival of historic odours. Heritage Science, 5 (1) 10.1186/s40494-016-0114-1)
•    Bembibre Jacobo, C; Barratt, S; Vera, L; Strlič, M; (2017) Smelling the past: a case study for identification, analysis and archival of historic pot-pourri as a heritage smell. In: Bridgland, J, (ed.) ICOM-CC 18th Triennial Conference Preprints, Copenhagen, 4-8 September 2017. (pp. p. 1601). Paris: International Council of Museums
•    Bembibre, C.; Strlič, M; (2017) The Smell of Old Books: A Heritage Scent. In: Hisako Inoue. Die Bibliothek der Gerüche. Richochet #11, Villa Stuck und Distanz. Berlin, 2017