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Researchers Bury Their Noses in Books to Sniff Out the Morgan Library’s Original Smell

Researchers at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York are capturing the smell of its old books to reconstruct the building’s 1906 aroma.

Smell sampling equipment on Ihesus: The Floure of the Commaundementes of God, printed in London by Wyken de Worde (1521) at the Morgan Library & Museum in New York (photo by Christine Nelson)

“There is no single old book smell, and I associate that typical smell with a book that hasn’t been in a stable environment,” said Christine Nelson, curator of literary and historical manuscripts at the Morgan Library & Museum. And stability is a major concern for the Manhattan institution with its incredible collection of books dating back to the fifth century. Nelson and a group of students from the Columbia Graduate School of Architecture, Planning and Preservation (GSAPP), who gathered in the Morgan’s conservation lab, were deeply inhaling the scents of a selection of old books to consider what the place may have smelled like way back in 1906, the year that John Pierpont Morgan’s stately McKim, Mead and White-designed library was completed.

Carlos Benaim, master perfumer from International Flavors and Fragrances smelling one of J. P. Morgan’s Pedro Murias Cuban cigars (photo by Christine Nelson)

And whether or not the windows were open in J. P. Morgan’s day was on the mind of Jorge Otero-Pailos, who is teaching this experimental historic preservation class. Street smells from Gilded Age New York could have wafted through the windows, mingling with the collection of rare tomes from across various eras, and the cigar puffing of Morgan himself. “I try to get students to rethink how we can preserve objects in a creative way that reengages people with those objects,” he said. Last year at Westminster Hall in London’s Palace of Westminster, his “The Ethics of Dust” installation involved a latex cast of one wall, a process that lifted visible and invisible dust and dirt from the old structure.

“In architecture school, we teach everything about space, light, and color of spaces, somehow everything but the smell,” Otero-Pailos added. Along with Nelson, he’s collaborating with his co-instructor neuroscientist Andreas Keller, who specializes in smell; Carlos Benaim, master perfumer at International Flavors and Fragrances (IFF); and Subha Patel, an organic chemist at IFF, who once sent a rose on a NASA space shuttle flight to study the impact on its smell.

“The smell of a room can bring you to that room faster than a picture,” Benaim remarked. To create what he called a “reconstruction of an epoch,” the students and researchers are delicately capturing the smells of different objects and historic areas of the 1906 Morgan. They’ve descended to the basement, with its antique Otis elevator works, examined the fireplace, and climbed up to a 16th-century tapestry, which is the only textile known to date to J. P. Morgan’s time. Their main tool, in addition to their curious noses, is a small glass dome that can gently rest on a centuries-old book without damaging it, collecting its character with molecules on a wax needle (a technique known as headspace technology). “The bell acts as a way of concentrating what is there,” Benaim explained. “It can pick up parts per billion of ingredients in the atmosphere.” Otero-Pailos said that it was so precise “none of us could wear cologne that day.”

The sampling equipment on Ihesus: The Floure of the Commaundementes of God, printed in London by Wyken de Worde (1521) (photo by Christine Nelson)
Subha Patel, chemist at IFF, taking a smell sample of a box of J. P. Morgan’s cigars (photo by Christine Nelson)

Later these odors can be analyzed with a mass spectrometer, and ultimately, with scents of weathered leather books and even a surviving box of Morgan’s beloved cigars wrapped with his custom band, a profile of the Morgan Library in 1906 can be created. In the conservation lab, the convened group was remarking on the differences between two 1512 books, one with a more chemical scent. It turned out that it had been rebound much more recently, the fragrance of its fresher leather giving away the later repair. An array of old and new book adhesives, along with specimens of animal skin and beeswax, were arranged on a metal table, so the students could use scent to better understand all the pieces that go into building a book. A large paper block book had a distinct smell from an older vellum-bound book, their shifting bouquets of binding, adhesive, and paper acting as a chronology of the print industry changing over time.

“Instead of just looking at what you’re seeing, it’s what would have gone into creating the aroma of the original Morgan Library,” Nelson added. And it’s more complicated than simply sampling the library’s founding collection. She pointed out, for instance, that although the majority of the people around in 1906 would have been men with their manly scents, there was also Belle da Costa Greene who was a powerful presence as J. P. Morgan’s librarian. Maybe among the bright smells of the elevator, the papery odors of the books, and the perhaps unpleasant New York City street smells (where horse-drawn transportation was still present), there was a whiff of her perfume.

Various adhesives in the conservation lab of the Morgan Library (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)
The students and Morgan Library smell researchers assembled in the conservation lab (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

“The goal is to encourage students to think of historic spaces in a different way,” Otero-Pailos said. He noted that the 1906 building at the Morgan can sometimes go overlooked by visitors, who now enter by way of a newer Renzo Piano-designed expansion. “It’s the crown jewel of the museum, but it is invisible. We’re trying to reorient people towards the most important part of the whole place. After the class concludes, I will be working on a more complete reconstruction as an art project.” He imagines it as something that would slightly enhance the sensory experience of the library, to see how it might change people’s interactions with the space.

For now, the project is in its experimental phase. Ultimately, Otero-Pailos hopes to generate a methodology that could be replicated, as currently most olfactory practices relate to the perfume industry. As Nelson pointed out, the “end product is not the entire purpose.” Rather, it’s this idea of rethinking relationships to space through smell, and she affirmed as a longtime employee at the Morgan, it’s been a powerful reconnection to her early days at the museum. “Revisiting its old nooks and crannies, it has for me conjured a lot of memories,” she said. “It’s a living space, and it’s an evolving space.”

The sampling equipment on a leather-bound copy of The Golden Legend, printed in London by Wyken de Worde (1521) (photo by Christine Nelson)
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