UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage


Olfactory Heritage

Cecilia Bembibre working on a olfactory heritage project
Olfactory heritage is an aspect of cultural heritage concerning smells that are meaningful to a community due to their connections with significant places, practices, objects or traditions, and can therefore be considered part of the cultural legacy for future generations. 

We know the hundreds of scents that we perceive every day have an impact on the way we think, feel and behave. Less is known about how they affect the way we engage with history and heritage: part of our research explores how certain smells can help the retention of memories and knowledge in a museum context, make heritage more inclusive and promote well-being.

    Headspace solid phase microextraction (HS-SPME) of a historic book VOCs at the Heritage Science Lab at UCL

    Olfactory Heritage Science

    Our approach to olfactory heritage research is interdisciplinary, with unique expertise form a heritage science perspective. We have developed a framework to identify smells of cultural significance and study them via chemical and sensory characterisation at the Heritage Science Laboratory. Find out more about olfactory heritage science and our framework to research heritage scents.

    Historic brush being prepared for VOC analysis at the Heritage Science Lab at UCL

    Olfactory heritage projects

    At UCL Institute for Sustainable Heritage, we have been researching olfactory heritage since 2010. As a result, we have developed collaborative projects involving partners in academia, heritage and industry. Find out more about our current and past projects.

    We engage in discussions with scientists, heritage and policy professionals in a variety of expert forums; our findings are published in leading academic journals in the heritage science, conservation, history, chemistry and cultural studies. Our work has reached a wider audience and engaged the public in a conversation about smell and heritage. 

    Media Engagement

    For other examples of media engagement, including international press, please see here.

    • M. Strlič, J. Thomas, T. Trafela, L. Cséfalvayová, I. Kralj Cigić, J. Kolar, M. Cassar: “Material Degradomics: on the Smell of Old Books”, Anal Chem. 81 (2009) 8617-8622.
    • M. Strlič, E. Menart, I. Kralj Cigić, G. de Bruin, J. Kolar, M. Cassar: “Emission of volatiles and reactive oxygen species during degradation of iron gall ink”, Polym. Degrad. Stab., 95 (2010) 66-71.
    • M. Strlič, I. Kralj Cigić, A. Možir, G. de Bruin, J. Kolar, M. Cassar: “The Effect of Volatile Organic Compounds and Hypoxia on Paper Degradation”, Polym Degrad. Stab., 96 (2011) 608-615.
    • K. Curran, M. Strlič: “Polymers and Volatiles: Using VOC Analysis for Improved Conservation of Plastic and Rubber Objects”, Stud. Conserv., 60 (2015) 1-14.
    • 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.
    • K. Curran, M. Underhill, J. Grau-Bove, T. Fearn, L. T. Gibson, M. Strlič: ”Sniffing out Decay: classifying degraded modern polymeric museum artefacts by their smell”, Angew. Chem., 57 (2018) 7336-7340, DOI: 10.1002/anie.201712278.
    • F. Portoni, J. Grau-Bové, M. Strlič: “A non-invasive, non-destructive technique to quantify naphthalene emission rates from museum objects”, Heritage Science 7 (2019) #58.