But the main question is: How do you host a perfume exhibition with only 10 scents on show in one of the most-visited buildings on The Strand? In these heady summer days, will you get high on the high notes? And how do you negotiate the crowds?
The exhibition focuses only on 21st-century scent, and only on scent that is 'seminal'. It's displayed over 10 rooms, with no accompanying information. You're provided instead with a card and pencil, for writing your own notes on the smelling notes. It's wine tasting for Cyrano de Bergerac.
You walk around rooms accessorised with only a bit of lighting and a prop or two – there's a rumpled bed, a sunken tray of tiny charcoal coloured beads that evoke Ai Weiwei's sunflower seeds, a monolithic plastic cube peppered with vents. Some rooms have little fabric pouches reminiscent of lavender bags, or bottles, or stuffed animals containing the room's scent.
Individual essences - and scents in unusual places
It's a subtle exhibition, small, but airy. One of the scents on display contains a particle that is actually too big for some people's olfactory receptors: a perfume you can't smell. Innovative scents by pioneering Japanese label Comme des Garçons feature twice.
General consensus with the exhibition goers is near-unanimous: We love the most recognisable of the scents: Charcoal – by Lyn Harris. It is supposed to evoke the scent of a smoky Scottish cottage through a blend of wood, balm and resin. To us, it smells simply of childhood bonfires.
After all, scent is the hardest of the human senses to crack – it has direct links to our subliminal selves. The brain's amygdala and hippocampus are very close to the olfactory bulb, so smell triggers memory far more immediately than the other senses.
At the end, a laboratory lets you try the key ingredients – from 'cookies' to the disgusting, metallic smell of saliva – used in the notorious 'Sécretions Magnifiques' alongside notes of milk and semen. It's wonderfully animal but, administered on a cardboard swatch by a blue-gloved technician, it's also slightly sinister.
An exhibition that mixes science, scent and subtlety, it's a little bare – but that's the point. It's highlight is surely the absence of marketing. Our experiences of perfume are so commercial, so filled with preposterous, surreal celebrity images that we're taken aback by the softly-softly approach. We smell a modern hit.
Look out for talks and workshops on the Somerset House website.
|What||Perfume : A sensory journey through contemporary scent, Somerset House review|
|Where||Somerset House, Strand, London, WC2R 1LA | MAP|
|Nearest tube||Temple (underground)|
21 Jun 17 – 17 Sep 17, Wednesdays, Thursday and Fridays 11:00 - 20:00
|Price||£9 - £11|
|Website||Click here to read more via Somerset House|