A painting you can smell? The future of inclusive museums on display in Madrid

Prado exhibition shows the importance of making exhibitions accessible to disabled people

Brueghel and Rubens, The Sense of Smell, 1617–1618, Wikimedia Public Domain

Heritage is often regarded as something you can see or touch. The Museo del Prado in Madrid decided to take a different route. Their new display includes a painting that you can not only see but also smell. The exhibition around Jan Brueghel and Peter Paul Rubens’ “The Sense of Smell” now features ten distinct scents and allows visitors to experience the painting in a different way. Could this be the next step in making museums more accessible to people who are blind or have low vision?

The painting’s original goal was to illustrate the vast range of smells that humans can distinguish and the Prado Museum adds a new layer to this. By using “AirParfum”, a technology developed by perfume company and partner Puig, perfumer Gregorio Sola created ten odours to overlap with various elements of the painting, EuroNews reported.

And it’s not a coincidence that curators picked this particular work. The painting is one of a five-part series called “The Five Senses” by Brueghel. Painted between 1617 and 1618, Brueghel wanted each of his works to evoke the power of the individual senses: sight, sound, smell, taste, and touch. Rubens contributed by painting the allegorical figures in the work.

What’s there to smell?

Thanks to four diffusers, visitors can smell notes of orange blossom, essential oils, jasmine or a fig tree when they interact with a touchscreen in front of the artwork. The fragrances of roses, irises, spikenard, and daffodils are also part of the experience.

Visitors in the Prado Museum, Madrid. Image: Iosmininos (Flickr) CC BY-SA 2.0

Giving the painting more animalistic flavours, Sola used the smell of an African civet, a small mammal native to sub-Saharan Africa. “Civet is a pretty harsh, dirty smell, but it’s what you find in all the perfume recipes from 1500 and 1600”, he told The Guardian. “That’s because it was used as a fixative to make sure the perfume lasted on the skin.”

The scent used in the exhibition is synthetic – “so no animals were hurt!” While the others are based on high-quality natural essences. Before they could decide what smells would be on display, the researchers had to identify about 80 different plant and flower species portrayed in the picture. For example, to recreate the smells of daffodils, the team gathered 1,300 kg of flowers.

Access for all

The Prado has been quite successful in their experiment to bring smell to an exhibition. “It is a small room. So it’s not one of these exhibitions with huge numbers”, Alejandro Vergara, senior curator at the Prado Museum explained. “But we’ve multiplied the number of people that go to that room by 20. The response both in Spain and around Europe has been very large and very enthusiastic. So we’re very happy with that.”

Could the addition of smells to an exhibition become a way of making museums more inclusive to disabled people? An article from Museum Next mentions that smell could be an excellent way to make a display come to life for every visitor. Combining sight, touch, sound and smell is a good way to create accessible exhibitions.

Creating inclusive displays can be done via exhibition texts in braille, making touchable art or adding smells and sounds to an exhibition. Image: Tima Miroshnichenko (Canva)

The Prado can take an example from their neighbour, the Museum for the Blind, also based in Madrid. It was founded by ONCE the national blind association in Spain. The museum offers several exhibitions that include models of famous buildings, the history of braille, and touchable artworks created by visually impaired artists.

Another place one can take inspiration from is the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, which offers a tour specifically for visitors with a vision impairment. Another example would be the VR-touching tours of The Head of Nefertiti, Venus de Milo, and Michelangelo’s David curated by the National Gallery in Prague. If you could get all curators in the same room, perhaps a collaboration around the other senses-paintings by Brueghel could kickstart a wave of exhibitions that are accessible to visually impaired people.

Making Brueghel and Rubens’ The Sense of Sight accessible to all seems like an excellent follow-up exhibition. Image: Wikimedia Public Domain

Source: Euronews, Museum Next, The Guardian

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