"Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent” at Somerset House

Perfume has changed a whole lot since the end of the 20th Century. Back then it was “celebrity scents” (ugh!) that was the perfume trend of the late nineties/ early noughties. Mass-market scents have taken a backseat as niche perfumery has come to the fore – together with the people responsible for concocting it. With customers wanting to know more information, where their perfume has come from, who has made it and what’s in it etc. the world of fragrance has become a whole lot more exciting and in-depth, offering the consumer a lot more than just a pretty smell and a celebrity marketing campaign. 

And what in years to come may be seen as the crowning achievement of all of this, is the new exhibition “Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent” at Somerset House. Curated by their Senior Curator Claire Catterall and fragrance writer Lizzie Ostrom (aka “Odette Toilette”, hostess of many wonderful fragrant workshops) we attended the press preview this morning with eager anticipation as to just how a “scented exhibition” would work.

As Claire noted in her introduction before we went in, people don’t want to smell “pretty” or “sexy” anymore (amen to that). They’re more interested in scents which recreate the smell of tarmac say, or a musty library replete with leather-bound books. We want scent to be interesting – to take us somewhere and to have something to say, as would a novel or a piece of music (and obviously make us smell sumptuous in the bargain).

Lizzie continued to explain that the exhibition focuses solely on 21st Century perfumes, specifically ten which have been deemed industry game-changers. I won’t spoil it for anyone by naming them here, as these aren’t revealed until you reach the end of the exhibition – the aim being to interpret each scent in your own way - via an installation - before finding out the story behind it.

Each installation is unique, weird and wonderful in its own right – from scented spheres that you’re required to lift from a pit of gravel, to mini scented punch bags, suspended on chains in wooden confessional cubicles (50 Shades of Scent style), to watercolours and cuddly toys (yes, really!). It’s a fascinating journey into this new “golden age of perfumery” in which we’re apparently living. And at the perfumes are as weird and wonderful as the exhibits, with many famous noses involved including Andy Tauer, Geza Schoen and Bertrand Duchaufour.

And right at the end there is a pop-up “Laboratory” from Givaudan (among the world’s most prestigious perfume schools), giving visitors a behind-the-scenes glimpse (and sniff) at what goes into making a scent. The perfumers and trainees involved will also be creating actual new scents from scratch on site, so you can see a perfume come into being that will eventually end up on the shelves. And for those wishing to try their hand, two immersive workshops will be taking place in the Laboratory on 25th July and 29th August, in collaboration with The Experimental Perfume Club.

As perfume exhibitions go – well actually, when has there been one up until now?  - it’s a fantastic olfactory journey and a reminder of how important and intriguing our sense of smell really is.

Perfume: A Sensory Journey Through Contemporary Scent is on from 21 June – 17 September at the East Wing Galleries, Somerset House (nearest tube, Charing Cross). Admission is £11, £9 for concessions.

Find out more and book tickets at somersethouse.org.uk/whats-on/perfume