What does Helsinki smell like?
What does the nose remember? What does Helsinki smell like? Can a museum experience be built on a single smell? The Helsinki City Museum at Aleksanterinkatu 16 will offer a new sensory experience starting from Friday, 7 October 2016 when Smell opens on the fourth floor of the museum.
A Helsinki-related scent takes over the same space which previously hosted Museum of Broken Relationships, the hugely popular exhibition that attracted nearly 135,000 visitors in four months.
The concept of the museum’s fourth-floor space involves expanding the idea of a museum with content that inspires emotions and that can be, for instance, exhibitions or events—or as in this case, experiences. The fourth floor is also about experimenting. In many museums, scents have been used as a part of an exhibition or work of art, but Smell tests whether a museum experience can be built entirely on one smell.
Smell gives room for memories
Smell dedicates the fourth floor of the museum to smells that describe Helsinki and to listening to your own memories. Smell is not a traditional exhibtion, but a sensory experience. The leading role is played by a Helsinki-related scent, changing weekly throughout the autumn and the winter. “We won’t reveal in advance what the scent in the space refers to as we want visitors to be able to form associations as freely as possible,” says producer Sauli Seppälä of Helsinki City Museum.
In Smell’s calming environment, urban stimuli are absent. When one sense is emphasised and other senses play a smaller role, there is room for thoughts emerging from your mind. Lighting designed by Kristian Palmu highlights the atmosphere of concentration and the open space in which you can focus on associations inspired by your sense of smell—different for different people. The scents have been designed Max Perttula, “Finland’s only perfumer”.
During Smell, the museum collects smell memories as well as emotions evoked by the smells on the fourth floor. In the autumn and winter, the museum also features a theme-related programme, including Scent Dates in October, an event for finding a partner on the basis of a person’s characteristic smell.
Smells evoke emotions
Unlike other senses, information collected as smells by the nose goes directly to the most primitive part of the brain, the emotion and memory centre. A passing smell sensation may take you instantly back through the years or trigger a riot of emotions. People sense and interpret smells in different ways. Scents also have a subconscious effect and power over people’s everyday life—over choosing a partner, for instance.
When the museum asked its customer panel in March 2015 what Helsinki smells like, it received more than 200 smell memories in response. The volume and thoroughness of the responses indicate how strong smell-related recollections are. The respondents described, for instance, the scent of coffee wafting from the roastery in Vallila, the aroma of asphalt on a sweltering day, wet parks in the spring, the reek of urine near the railway station as well as the smell of exhaust gas and sand on the streets in the suburbs. The responses were utilised when designing Smell.
Please note that people sensitive to scents may feel uncomfortable on the fourth floor of the museum.
Photo: Maija Astikainen