DUTCH scientists are recreating the deaths of some of the world’s most famous personalities by reconstructing their last moments using scents and sounds.
From the sweet smell of Jacqueline Kennedy’s perfume, mingled with the scent of John F Kennedy’s blood to Whitney Houston’s last drug-fuelled moments in a Beverly Hills bathtub, scientists at Breda university say they offer visitors a unique, if somewhat macabre, historical snapshot.
“We all have seen the images of JFK’s assassination, but what did it smell like?” asks Frederik Duerinck, from the communication and multimedia design faculty of Breda’s Avans university of applied sciences.
To find out, visitors to the Museum of the Image in the Netherlands with a sense of the morbid are invited to lie in a series of four silver metal boxes similar to those found in a morgue.
The boxes, which are pitch-dark inside, are rigged with pipes leading to bottles containing pressurised smells.
A soundtrack is played and different scents are released into the box to recreate a specific “final moment”.
For around five minutes, visitors can relive the smells and sounds believed to have surrounded four people whose deaths are etched into the world’s collective memory: Kennedy (1963); Diana, Princess of Wales (1997); Muammar Gaddafi (2011) and Houston (2012).
For instance, those wanting to experience Houston’s final moments are transported to a bathtub at the upmarket Beverly Hills hotel where the diva died in February 2012 at age 48.
A coroner ruled the singer died of accidental drowning, with cocaine and heart disease listed as contributing factors.
To the sounds of splashing water and Houston’s voice, a visitor first gets a whiff of generic cleaner, used in hotels around the world, followed by the olive oil the singer used in her tub.
Then a strong chemical odour, similar to that of cocaine fills the box, grabbing its occupant by the throat, followed by the sound of rushing water and then silence.
“Smell is rarely used in communication and we wanted to explore its uses,” said Mr Duerinck. “It’s a very powerful means of communication.”
Scientists have proved smells are linked to the part of the brain that regulates emotion and memory.
Odours are often used in the retail industry to trigger a buying mood in customers.
“Who doesn’t want to buy a loaf after catching a whiff of fresh bread?” said Mr Duerinck, who together with other lecturers and students has put together an inventory of odours and is devising new ways of using smell: for instance in storytelling.
It’s quite surprising and spectacular,” said Riks Soepenberg, 31, who experienced a recreation of Gaddafi’s last moments as the former Libyan strongman was hunted and killed by rebels in October 2011.
“You can watch the pictures as many times as you want — it’s just not the same thing,” he said of the attack on Gaddafi’s convoy, forcing the long-serving leader to hide in a drainage pipe before being murdered.
“I almost felt myself being hunted,” said Mr Soepenberg.
In coming months, the installation will be taken across Europe.
According to the researchers this is not necessarily an effort to re-create historical accuracy but rather they aim to investigate new ways of “smelling” old stories.
Indeed the stories of today and the future will be told in new and exciting multisensory formats, however I am quite sure that the best stories will be those that retain the age-old campfire experience of storytelling.