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Somerset House Perfume Exhibition: Scent takes centre stage

Sweat, blood, chlorine, ink, creosote. Not a list one would normally associate with fragrance, but a list, nonetheless, that welcomes all those heading to Somerset House’s newest exhibition, Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent, opening this week.

Arguably the sense we talk and think about the least: smell, has a peculiar place in our lives, with the average Joe having done little more than consider perfume as a last minute addition to an outfit for years. That spritz that brings the look to a perfectly scented close – part of the morning routine that requires less thought than our shoe choice, but a smidgen more than our sock choice, (one would hope).

Photo credit: Peter Macdiarmid for Somerset House

For Senior Curator Claire Catterall, and Co-Curator Lizzie Ostrom, AKA Odette Toilette, this newest venture is all about changing the tide. Pinpointing a shift in attitudes, spearheaded at the turn of the century, the exhibition aims to stimulate and awaken the senses in a less than ordinary way.  “In the 21st century perfume is changing,” said Catterall. “We want to smell different. Different from everyone else and different from before. We want to be taken on a journey, to a space in time or a space emotionally,” but what’s instigated this new found interest in all things fragrance?

“We’re in the process of opening up Pandora’s box on perfume composition,” elaborates Ostrom. “Perfumers used to be a bit like song writers, but over the last 17 years things have changed, they’ve come out of the ‘cupboard’ and are talking to us – about their stories, the ingredients they love, why they love perfume. It’s initiated a new thirst for knowledge, a want to know about the story behind the scent.”

For those worried that the exhibition might be a tad too technical for them – reams of literature on notes and fragrance pyramids and the like – fear not. This is an initiation into the world for the uninitiated, but rather than showcasing fragrances we’ve all known and loved over the years, 10 rooms champion the scents that break boundaries, the rebels of the industry that are doing things differently.

Photo credit: Peter Macdiarmid for Somerset House

From Killian Wells to Mark Buxton and Geza Schoen, a cohort of perfumers that look at the industry in a completely different way take exhibit goers on an olfactory journey through experimental scents. Inviting visitors to connect with the fragrances on a personal level, each room offers up an immersive experience, with scented artefacts set in visual and auditory installations that hint at the mood of the perfume, without actually revealing what it is.

Presented with a ‘notes-book’ upon arrival, visitors are invited to jot down their own thoughts on each perfume – the scents they detect, the way it makes them feel, a memory it brings flooding back – with the curators hoping to find a wealth of new vocabulary the industry can adopt. Rooms designed like mock forests, art rooms and even confessionals, are broken up with ‘reveal rooms’ at five scent intervals, where the story, name and nose behind the mystery perfumes are unearthed. So if you fall in love with one you’ll be able to adopt it into your own fragrance library, rather than being left in the dark for evermore.

Photo credit: Peter Macdiarmid for Somerset House

Finishing with a working laboratory where visitors can see perfumers mix and swirl and sniff to their hearts content, the exhibition run will also offer hands-on workshops, where novices like ourselves can have a go creating our own liquid language.

Immersive, interactive, visual and thought provoking, Perfume hits all the right notes for an audience that are starting to understand the power of the nose, and the treasures that lie in the more idiosyncratic corners of the fragrance world.
Scent and fragrance your thing? Check out this post on turning scent into sculptures.

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