Smell Mapping in the USA


Kate McLean (Graphic Design 2004), our Overseas Correspondent in the print version of & Then, is taking her life-long fascination with maps to new heights. Having created tactile maps for the blind, topographical maps from strange substances like lard, and fictional but not unimaginable maps, such as The City of the Eternal Itinerant, she has recently moved to mapping cities using smell. Paris, Edinburgh and Glasgow have all come under her nose and, as she’s not an artist who confines her parameters in any way, she has moved on to the States.

This summer, after much research, Kate created the first smell map of Newport, RI, a small city whose non-nasal signatures are many (think of sailing, the Gilded Age mansions, beaches, fishing). Enlisting the noses of Newporters, on bike rides and smell walks, and with the, first, concurrence and then, enthusiastic support, of the Discover Newport Visitors Center, she created a visual representation of the signature smells of the city and then fabricated the smells to go with it. Here’s the story:

Hello. My name is Kate McLean and I graduated from NESADSU in Graphic Design in 2004. I now research urban smell landscapes (smellscapes) and create and design smell maps.

But why?
To sensitize tourists and visitors to a new place to use a largely-ignored sense in their perception of that place.

But why smell?
Because smell has a “do not enter brain processing” connection with our emotions, making smell the supreme retainer of memory over our other senses. We have 100% smell recall after one year but only 30% sight memory after three months. The first time we smell a new scent we automatically associate it with whether we like it or not (positive or negative) and we associate it with the location where we smell it. Therefore I propose that smell can be used in tourism marketing to foster lasting memories of a place.

But why a map?
Because maps are an old graphic device of data visualization. Maps show proximity, range, location – all characteristics of smell that are difficult to explain verbally in any kind of a coherent way. Moreover I have been fascinated by maps since I was a small child. My first book memory is of the map at the start of Winnie-the-Pooh that depicts his small world and I grew up thinking that all books had a map as the end paper. I wanted to make maps but realized, at ten years of age, that the world had already been discovered. So, if the physical, geographical world has been represented then I just had to discover a new territory – my landscape is the smellscape.

Where have you “Smell Mapped”?
I started with Paris because it has astonishing emotion-inducing scents. The Paris smell map is a virtual dérive, a collection of perfumes placed on shelving on a board showing Parisian streets. Audience members walk a pace at a time to sniff as they “wander” the city’s streets. I moved on to Edinburgh. That city has one pervasive smell – identified as malt extract from the breweries – which sweeps the city’s streets, but the secondary smells are equally evocative. For Edinburgh I developed a visual language expressing how the smells move in the prevailing south-westerly winds. In the summer of 2011 I did a swift sniff of New York’s smelliest block and created a different visualization. Representing the larger scale of a couple of blocks instead of a whole city demanded I rethink how the smells move and interact with each other. I moved on to Glasgow, researching in the winter of 2011-2012. Glasgow is only 40 miles from Edinburgh but it has its own damp microclimate which affects how its smells linger in the air and this changed the visual language once again.

Do the maps smell?
The maps themselves do not smell; instead I make up individual scents using only natural ingredients that best reflect the smells I have selected to depict visually. Each scent is stored in its own bottle which is stored in a small cabinet underneath the map. I prefer to keep the contents of the bottles hidden so that the audience cannot rely on visual cues to identify the smells. For this reason I do not label the smells. I make most of the smells myself, trying to capture and hold elusive scents in the small bottles. I have learned how to distill rose petals, to create a perfume of stinky cheese, to depict the smell of penguins at the zoo without harming a single penguin. I can fabricate the smell of a building site and of boy’s toilets in primary schools. Stabilizing the scents but keeping them volatile enough to sniff is another art of the smell mapper and I’m keeping a recipe book to publish when I am famous!

Where in the U.S. did you decide to smell map?
For my first U.S. smell map I approached the tourist board of Newport, RI. While my previous smell maps have been exhibited in science museums, science festivals or art spaces, I want to test the possible links to tourism, to see whether tourists in a visitors’ center would take the time to “explore” a smell map. In a museum setting people are generally willing to engage and participate; there is, in fact, an expectation that they will do so. In a visitors’ center, the role of which is, of course, information synthesis and dispersal, there is no such expectation. Discover Newport’s Vice President of Marketing, Kathryn Farrington, was, after a very brief period of skepticism, incredibly supportive, a rock throughout the summer. Refuting that kind of skepticism is a key skill in a smell map proponent.

How do you research?
Each project varies slightly as I amend my methodology. Initially I decided on the smells based on personal experience. Then I started asking local residents of the city in question to provide me with the smells that they associate with their environments. This progressed to asking for comments via my blog and to asking local media to help solicit responses. Overall there is nothing to beat talking to local people, and in Newport I took time to devise a couple of smell walks and a wonderful smell bike ride. Bikers are keen sniffers! The resulting conversations revealed a vast amount of data including numerous descriptions of the ocean smell from the bikers (ocean, salt, weed, brine, home, fog) and a collection of urban aromas that combined the smell of homes, transport and business with the overall heady aroma of freshly frying bacon just outside the Newport police station.

What does smell mapping show?
I regard each map as a sensory portrait of its city. Smell maps depict a combination of history, biology, meteorology, geography, sociology. Edinburgh’s smell map is a series of dichotomies: urban and rural, rich and poor, historical and modern. The smell map of Glasgow illustrates the city’s ability to constantly re-invent itself. Newport’s smell map indicates the close relationship the city has with the ocean, both recreational and as a source of food.

What, or where, next?
First of all, I need to analyze how the Newport Smell Map is received, find out the general public’s response, and ask the staff of the Visitors’ Center what they observe over the three-week period during which the smell map in on display. This will have a direct bearing on whether I continue to work with the smell maps applied to tourism or whether I treat them more as graphic design/art projects. I have three variations in my mind for the future. One is to create a series of seasonal smell maps for a city based on discovering how the smellscape varies over the course of a year. The second is to create a smell map in every continent working with the tourism industries of either Morocco or Rwanda in Africa, and with cities in Asia, South America, the Arctic or Antarctic and Australasia. The third project is a thought about developing a participatory website of global smells, but first I have a new job as a full-time lecturer in Graphic Design at a university in the U.K. Thankfully I will still have time to research, just not as much as in the past couple of years!


Twitter: @katemclean

Photograph of Kate courtesy of Meg O’Neill.