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Heritage smells! « The Polar Museum: news blog

The Polar Museum: news blog

Heritage smells!

I'm afraid it's true – museum objects can be very smelly.  You are unlikely to notice it in a museum gallery because the artefacts are sealed up in glass cabinets, but behind the scenes the smells can be rather strong.  Some smells are very pleasant, like wedding cake and old leather.  Others are pretty awful, like deteriorating negatives.  Some smells divide opinion violently – caribou hair smells very strong and some staff members can't stand it, whereas I quite like it.  Here is Rebekah Parkinson working on acquiring a taste for it:


Sometimes objects have surprisingly little smell, like some of our heavily used expedition clothing – you would expect it to honk but it doesn't (or not much).

I may be a bit weird in my interest in smelly collections, but I am not alone!  "Heritage Smells" is actually the name of a research project at the Centre for Sustainable Heritage at UCL in London.  Objects often give off smells as they deteriorate, and if you can identify the volatile compounds in a smell you can relate it to an objects condition.  Using sensitive instruments, scientists can "sniff" artefacts with damaging them, and analyse the materials which are being given off. Currently the researchers are focussing on paper and plastics, and we hope conservators will eventually be able to use this technique to help assess object condition.

There is a very odd smell in one of our object stores which has been bothering me for a long time.  It is a sour smell and I am concerned that something in the store is giving off an acidic vapour which could be damaging for metal or other sensitive materials in the same room.  I spent a lot of time sniffing around trying to work out where the smell comes from without success.  So I got in touch with Katherine Curran at the Centre for Sustainabale Heritage, and she very kindly agreed to analyse the smell for me.  To "sniff" the air in the room she sent me this:


These skinny rods both contain SPME fibres, which absorb the volatile compounds in the air so they can be analysed.  Katherine sent me two, one to sample the air in the smelly store and one to put in another similar store which doesn't smell, to act as a baseline for the normal smells in the Polar Museum.  The foil was taken off the ends (it was just there to keep them clean) and the white absorbent fibre bit exposed:


The rod was stuck into some foam so the white bit at the top could absorb molecules from the air without being contaminated by touching anything else.  The two rods were exposed for two weeks and then sent back to Katherine for analysis.  The results were very interesting.  The smelly store has no less than seven volatile materials in the air that aren't found in the air of the other store.  These include toluene, furfural, 2-ethylhexanoic acid, diisobutylphthalate and ethyl benzoate.  Each of these compounds is given off by different materials, but 2-ethylhexanoic acid and diisobutylphthalate are both associated with PVC, which is a common plastic in modern artefacts.  All this is very useful in tracking down the source of the problem – when I nail the culprit I will let you know!


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