The scent of heritage

This is a follow-up post by Valdimar Hafstein, commentator to the Research Unit on Cultural Property, to Regina Bendix’s post on Preservation Analogies.

Seven and a half years ago, three Australian musicians put on a performance in Salurinn, a concert hall in suburban Reykjavík. The artists – Yirryirrngu Ganambarr, Mirrwatnga Munyarryun, Ngongu Ganambarr – are all indigenous Yolngu artists from the north coast of Australia‘s Northern Territory, the home of the didgeridoo, and sure enough their performance prominently featured the wind instrument as well as drums and was accompanied by dance, with all three performers in traditional Yolngu costumes and body-painting.

Iceland’s Channel 2 television news ran a story about the performance and played a clip from the dress rehearsal. The clip was followed by a brief interview with the Yolngu artists. Although the performance was impressive, what has stayed with me is the interview. The first question that the reporter asked these three artists who had traveled literally halfway around the world to sing, dance, and make music – to perform for an Icelandic audience – was “is this art form in danger of disappearing?” The Yolngu artists made his question memorable by their refusal to answer. The reporter finished the story by conveying his bewilderment to television viewers.

I have a point, though it may seem long in the making. It relates to Regina Bendix’s previous blog, albeit in a roundabout way. What the reporter heard in Salurinn was music. What he saw was painted bodies in costumes dancing and playing instruments.

He smelled heritage.

He smelled heritage, the same way that protagonists in a mob movie smell a rat. It‘s not in any particular that you see, and it‘s not in the particulars you hear. It‘s in the relation between things. Something is off.

Invisible to the eye, inaudible to the ear, intangible to the hand; yet it is very much real and we know it when we encounter it. We smell it out. Heritage, thus seen, could be described as a volatile compound relating one thing to another: buildings, books, objects, sounds, bodies, practices. We detect it with receptors located in the olfactory epithelium, high up in the nose. The receptors send a signal to the glomeruli, which in turn send signals to the brain, which puts the signals together and makes sense of them: aha, heritage! Sometimes the scent of heritage is nuanced and understated, but more and more often it is overdetermined and smells to high heaven. Noses are not all equally trained to recognize it, but nowadays they are all trained to a greater or lesser degree.

It wasn‘t actually the Icelandic reporter who provoked this musing, it was another report I read this week, right after I read Regina Bendix’s cultural property blog on preservation analogies. The report in question, however, isn‘t analogical in reasoning – not overtly, at least. It‘s about a research project in heritage science coordinated by scientists at the University of Strathclyde in the UK. Its aim is to develop non-destructive methods to identify old books in need of conservation. What the scientists have come up with is a promising method for picking up the scent of heritage – the aroma of an old book. We all know it from the more interesting parts of the archive or the library. They describe it, in the lingo of a knowledgeable sommelier, as „a combination of grassy notes with a tang of acids and a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness.“ „This unmistakable smell is as much part of the book as its contents“, they add, yet it is a sure sign of deterioration. The heritage scientists have chemically identified the particular volatile organic compounds that our olfactory receptors signal to the glomeruli and the glomeruli collectively signal to the brain, which in turn interprets the signals as grassy and acidic „with a hint of vanilla over an underlying mustiness“.[1. Matija Strlič, Jacob Thomas, Tanja Trafela, Linda Cséfalvayová, Irena Kralj Cigić, Jana Kolar and May Cassar (2009): „Material Degradomics: On the Smell of Old Books“, Analytical Chemistry 81(20), 8617-8622,] The next step is to develop diagnostic tools to automatically detect and locate old books in need of conservation: a heritage-o-meter, accurate as a Geiger counter. Using this new tool to supplement their natural sense of smell, the archivist and the librarian will be able to sniff out heritage wherever it is hiding.

Moving back from biochemistry to analogy, how could we describe the scent of heritage outside the archive? (Whatever the answer, it‘s got not to smell „like teen spirit“). Is decay necessary to it? If so, what do we mean by decay? Does it refer to a perceived difference in temporalities, along the lines of what Bloch and Koselleck term „die Ungleichzeitigkeit des Gleichzeitigen“? Returning once more to that concert hall in the suburbs of Reykjavík, that, I think, is exactly what the reporter smelled: sounds, movements, colors, any of which could have stood in a context he would have interpreted differently, but which in their particular combination sent signals that, to his/our way of seeing the world set off alarms of asynchronicity: this wasn‘t modern dance, modern music, modern dress. The question followed naturally, the microphone stretched out to the painted Yolngu artists after they had rehearsed their „primitive“ performance for the television cameras: “is this art form in danger of disappearing?”