Odeuropa to explore Europe’s smelly heritage

Research project ODEUROPA of the KNAW Humanities Cluster has received 2.8 million euros from the European Horizon 2020 program for the development of sensory mining techniques to rediscover Europe’s olfactory heritage and to bring it back “to the nose”. The project will be led by Inger Leemans, quartermaster of NL-Lab, in collaboration with Marieke van Erp from DHLab. In addition, various researchers from the KNAW Humanities Cluster are involved: intangible heritage and food experts from the Meertens Institute and Digital Data Managers from Huygens ING.

“Smells shape our experience of the world, yet we have very little sensory information about the past”, explained Inger Leemans, project lead of ODEUROPA and professor of cultural history at VU University and the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences Humanities Cluster (KNAW-HuC). “ODEUROPA will dive into digital heritage collections to discover the key scents of Europe and the stories they carry, then bring them back to our noses today”.

ODEUROPA will find references to smells such as disease-fighting perfumes, tobacco or the stench of industrialisation in historic literature and paintings using state-of-the-art AI techniques. “We want to teach the computer to see a smell”, explains Peter Bell, professor of digital humanities at FAU and part of the team using machine learning and computer vision to train computers in analysing scented objects and olfactory information in historic images. They will work with computational linguistics experts at the Fondazione Bruno Kessler, led by researcher Sara Tonelli: “Our goal is to develop a ‘computer nose’ able to trace scents and olfactory experiences in digital texts over four centuries and seven languages”.

An archive of the smells and their meaning will be created by a team of semantic web experts and cultural historians and stored online, accessible to all. In addition, some of the historic scents will be brought back to life by heritage scientists and shared with museum visitors in a series of public events until 2023.

The ODEUROPA team is an international consortium with expertise in history, art history, computational linguistics, semantic web, computer vision, heritage science and chemistry. These are the partners:

  1. KNAW Humanities Cluster (The Netherlands)
  2. FAU Erlangen-Nürnberg (Germany)
  3. Fondazione Bruno Kessler (Italy)
  4. Eurecom – Sophia Antipolis (France)
  5. Anglia Ruskin University (United Kingdom)
  6. Jožef Stefan Institute (Slovenia)
  7. University College London (United Kingdom)

The Guardian wrote an article about Odeuropa (Tuesday 17 November 2020).