An interactive olfactory artwork by Nathan Cohen and Reiko Kubota

Authors: Nathan Cohen and Reiko Kubota


Pomander is the third artwork we have created for the Olfactory Art and Science Research Project, as we continue to explore the potential for smell to evoke natsukashii (nostalgic) memories and associations. Exhibited in Natsukashii Doftminnen at the Wanås Konst Museum in Sweden it consists of 2 compact metal display boxes each containing scent samples in decorated glass vials, and a small model period theatre.

A pomander (from Medieval Latin 'pomum ambrae' and old French 'pome d'ambre') is an object, sometimes ball shaped, containing dried herbs, spices, flowers or perfumes, which could be worn or carried to protect against infection or as a means to modify bad odours. Pomander can refer to both the container and its contents.

We are investigating how smell can evoke memories of past associations and transcend the passage of time, enabling us to comprehend what we encounter and to recollect past experiences. As a part of this process we are also exploring if it is also possible to affect affinity with the experiences of others through a shared familiarity with the smells with which they are associated.

The theme for Pomander relates to a 1673 letter sent to a Lady Gerard, first exhibited as part of Viola Odorata (Kyoto, 2017). We can imagine her in Drury Lane, where she was residing in London, holding a scented pomander close to her nose to mask the everyday smells of the city as she travels to the theatre nearby. Inside the theatre other play goers wait expectantly, a heady smell of musk and perfume emanating into the dimly lit auditorium. The odour of tallow and smoke from the candles also pervade the air as the play begins.


The model theatre included in the Pomander display is an allusion to this experience. It also relates to natsukashii childhood memories of enjoyment playing with toys of this kind and further develops the theme of associations with objects of play and entertainment that was a source of inspiration for the pop-up construction of the images in Memory Box.

From the outset of the research project we have been creating artworks and artefacts that encourage memory association through smell and combined stimuli (haptic, visual), toward enhancing well being in those who encounter our work. We are also seeking to achieve this in forms that are personal and intimate to the user, the inclusion of smell as part of their construction encouraging viewer interaction.

Pomander explores a wider range of scents selected to correspond to familiar smells including natural oils extracted from herbs and flowers. These are presented in the compact metal containers, with glass vials of scent samples decorated in keeping with the theatre narrative theme. 


For the exhibition a questionnaire accompanied Pomander encouraging viewers to sniff 10 scent samples to try and identify each scent and then to state 3 preferences and 1 choice of their favourite smell. This was a blind sampling as the actual scents were not identified, being presented in numbered glass vials. Participation was optional and the sampling and questionnaires could be done anonymously, with 23 fully completed over the 4 days duration of the exhibition (a further 48 questionnaires were partially completed).

We will use the results to select scents for the next piece we are creating where we will also be exploring the potential to combine many of the elements that have been evolved in our research so far, integrating smell, image and haptic interaction in a construction that is intimate in scale and where the content can be personalised.


© 2017 Nathan Cohen, Reiko Kubota
Photo credits: Images 1, 4 - Yasuaki Matsumoto; Images 2, 3 - Nathan Cohen - All rights of reproduction reserved.