Archives and Sensory Experience

MARA Blog

Published: September 28, 2016 by Anna Maloney

The spring/summer issue of The American Archivist, the biannual publication of the Society of American Archivists, was arranged around the theme reconsidering archives. In his introduction to the issue, Editor Gregory S. Hunter explains that the goal is to compel archivists to “look again at the ‘stars’ that guide the archival profession.”  One of the articles closely aligned with this theme is Anna Chen’s “Perfume and vinegar: Olfactory knowledge, remembrance, and recordkeeping,” which explores the role that the sense of smell plays in personal remembrance and society stereotypes.

The human reliance on sight to capture the world around us has long informed our archival collection and preservation strategies. There are, however, notable efforts to collect, capture, and preserve other sensory experiences as well. Yellowstone National Park has compiled a sound library, which features field recordings of birds, mammals, geysers, and other natural acoustic experiences. And in 2012, London-based designer Amy Radcliffe presented an idea for an analogue odor camera called the Madeleine—“instead of recording light information the way that a camera would to recreate an image, her proposed device would record the molecular information contained in an odor.”

Chen’s discussion of olfactory archiving is an important addition to the conversation surrounding cultures of recordkeeping. How can future archivists address the lack of scholarship surrounding ephemeral expression, including oral narrative, theater, and dance, and sensory memories such as sound, smell, taste and touch?