At the beginning of September, I visited Perfume at Somerset House. Somerset House is one of my favourite spaces in London, not only for exhibitions, such as Isabella Blow: Fashion Galore or Time: Tattoo Art Today, but to browse the shops on site, or to have a coffee (or Prosecco) overlooking the Thames. I heard about this Perfume exhibition a while ago, in part due to my recent research into fragrance and fashion.
I had no idea what this exhibition would entail. I was curious to see how they could curate an exhibition around scents and perfume. Whilst I understand how scents can enhance the museum experience, as there are strong connotations between scent and memory, I was still unsure how an exhibition based solely on the invisible would be curated. In fact, when I started my Masters course a few weeks ago, I saw on the timetable a week where we will explore Phenomonology, with lots of readings about the importance of the senses, in relation to museum and material culture - something I am really looking forward to learning more about!
Upon entering the exhibition space - which is one that I haven't visited before - the exhibition began with a short 'history of' the modern perfume industry. Prior to my visit, I had some preconceived ideas of what may be included, and my instinct was right, with the inclusion of Shocking by Schiaparelli, Chanel No 5, and CK One, within the presentation of perfumes that are significant in the development of fragrance. Interestingly, many of them have a relationship with a fashion design house.
From here, visitors were encouraged to pick up a note card and pencil, before embarking on a scent journey through the rest of the space. Each room presented a different scent, in an atmosphere that reflected something about the fragrance; whether that was the notes within the fragrance, or the mood or inspiration it is meant to evoke in the smeller or wearer. Visitors are unaware of the brand, name or notes of the fragrance in each room. The room is presented to compliment the fragrance, so it was a real sensory experience, with the scent informing your view of the room and vice versa.
After every 5 rooms, we learnt more about each fragrance, including the name of the brand or designs, the name, the notes and the inspiration or story behind each fragrance. Below is an image from the room which I later discovered, held a Commes des Garçons unisex fragrance - which turned out to be my favourite scent from the show.
Apart from the above, other scents I liked included Incense: Avignon by Bertrand Dauchaufour and Purple Rain by Daniela Andrier. The former took me back to my Alter Serving days within the Catholic Church, evoking conflicting emotions of comfort - because it was familiar, whilst also being oppressive - because thats how growing up and being educated in the Catholic System has made me view it. The latter smelt familiar again, it reminded me of a product I've used before, perhaps from Lush.
On the other hand, I discovered that I dislike a lot of fragrances and scents. I've always been drawn to more niche scents, smells that I cannot imagine other people wearing. I also have strong attachments to smells. For example, whenever I smell the aftershave of an ex boyfriend of mine on someone, I automatically get an involuntary wave of anger, that passes as quickly as it arrives. Therefore, it was no surprise that many of the scent in the exhibition did not take my fancy.
However, only one evoked a feeling of revolution from me, and upon discovering what it was trying to emulate, I understand why! Although it supposedly is the 'scent of sexual pleasure', with notes to replicate sweat, semen, blood etc, I felt absolutely no pleasure smelling this. Remember that we smelt these with no preconceived understanding of the scent. This particular scent was presented on what looked like bed sheets - which later made sense. I remember writing on my notes that it smelt 'clinical' and that it made me feel 'uncomfortable' - maybe my reaction says something about me, eh?
Overall, Perfume really was a sort of journey, not just through the history and development of contemporary scents, but it was also a discovery of the importance of smell in sensory experience and really emphasised to me the relationship between the scent and memory. Most importantly though, it made me want to explore scent within the museum further, as going to see an exhibition is such a sensory experience. Most of the time, you are unable to touch the objects, and that tactile nature of clothing is hard to replicate behind glass, on a static mannequin. Therefore, I think the use of scent in the museum, could perhaps aim to assist visitors understand more about what they are viewing.
Although Perfume has now finished, I am already planning my next visit to Somerset House, to see the next fashion and photography exhibition, North: Fashioning identity, opening next month!