How Does Your Program Smell?


Does your natural or cultural site or facilities have a “signature” odor? That may be a strange question but it has more to do with interpretation than you may think.


Wikimedia photo.

Wikimedia photo.


I was reminded of the power of the Proust Effect when I visited the Science Teacher website that suggested going to a Dollar Store to buy library paste, the white glue used in grade school. Just reading those words immediately transported me to elementary school in Vandalia, Illinois, where the odor of library paste pervaded the hallways. I can even taste it (which tells you a little about what we did as kids back then). These “involuntary memories” characterize the Proust Effect and we can use what we know about it to plan effective interpretive experiences.


There’s a scientific basis for the Proust Effect that tracks back to our survival instinct. The olfactory nerves in our nose lead to the limbic system in our brain, the hippocampus and amygdala being two of several distinct parts of the system. This is the oldest part of the vertebrate brain, sometimes called the “animal brain.” Smells and tastes quickly inform animals of threats or food or opportunities for reproduction. Although we’re not entirely sure what animals hold in their memories, we do know that humans store memories all over the cerebral cortex and in the limbic system. A single smell or taste can quickly have our brain reassembling a memory from our past.


A coffee farm in Kona, Hawaii, gives out free samples and the smell of coffee brewing invites you in to try their samples.

A coffee farm in Kona, Hawaii, gives out free samples and the smell of coffee brewing invites you in.

This is the reason that movie theaters blow the smell of popcorn all over the waiting area, reminding us of how refreshments are part of the overall experience and enticing us to spend some extra money. Coffee shops such as Starbucks ask their staff to not wear colognes or deodorants with discernible odors to avoid interference with the tantalizing smell of coffee in the air. Because their brand is about the coffee and not their food items, they have food items brought in rather than baking or assembling on site for the same reason. Many businesses have figure out how to use the enrichment associated with sounds and smells to enhance their customers’ experience and encourage them to stay longer and spend more.


I once found a comment on by a tourist describing an important heritage site as “smelling like toilets.” That sort of report immediately tells me that the site is poorly maintained and could change my mind about visiting. On the flip side, sometimes very clean sites smell more like artificial scent blocks and cleansers than anything to do with the experience.


Heritage site managers should think not only about the appearance of the grounds and facilities, but the aromas that might enhance or detract from the experience. Knowing that the Proust Effect is at play, stop and smell the opportunities for enriching the experience at your site.


–       Tim Merriman