Institut du Monde Arabe

Parfums d’Orient

Fragrance has always been important in North Africa and the Middle East. It plays a crucial role on many levels, a theme I explored in my book Silver & Frankincense. So you can imagine my excitement when the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris presented their exhibition Parfums d’Orient: I had to go and see it!

Fragrance: a long history

The exhibition starts out with the history of perfume and perfume-making. As it was a well-visited exhibition, I had to wait a little before I could see the showcases, and while I looked around, I caught a whiff of something….roses? Was I imagining things? There were large photographs of the rose harvest in Morocco on the wall, so perhaps I got carried away before my visit had well and truly started?

The mystery was quickly solved when I approached the first showcases. These showed early incense burners, explained how the trade in frankincense brought prosperity to the Arab Peninsula and how fragrances like musk, oudh, ambergris and frankincense became prized goods in the ancient world. And with the showcases were beautifully designed dispensers that allowed visitors to smell each of these fragrances. Not too much and certainly not too heavy, but just enough to leave a hint of perfume lingering in the air.

Large cylinders with rose petals and saffron added a visual element to fragrance: with a click of a button, the petals whizzed around in their glass cylinders while a puff of scent was released. The video below shows what that looked like. To me, it was a beautiful visual companion to the photographs of the rose harvest I mentioned earlier, and a perfect start of the visit to get in the mood for perfumes.

Perfume and economics

From these first scents, the exhibition continues to the smells of everyday life. A small corner with tanned leather allows you to explore the foul smell of that process (and if you have visited the tanneries of Fez or Marrakech for example, you’ll know what I mean…!).

Large photographs of incense and perfume merchants in Oman tell the story of trade and commerce. Here, one of the explanations read that the souqs in Oman were the last place where fragrances were created in the traditional style, but I do seem to recall seeing that in Marrakech for example, too: there is hope yet for the traditional way of creating perfumes.

Perfume: science and creating

From the souq, we move on to the scientific processes behind distillation and evaporation. This was invented in the Middle Ages, and I absolutely loved seeing a replica of a distilling device next to a medieval manuscript depicting just such a thing. Medieval glass vessels show the craftmanship behind this scientific approach.

This part continues with the art of blending fragrances. Here again, the visitor experience is central: a ‘smelling station’ allows you to follow the buildup of three different fragrances, from the base notes, through the heart, to the top notes. It was a wonderfully layered experience to smell the ingredients coming together!

Perfume: home and guests

From the fields of roses and the streets of the souqs, the exhibition then continues into the home. Here, we learn of the importance of cleanliness and appearing well-groomed. Perfuming guests and hospitality are beautifully and evocatively illustrated, again with fragrance gently surrounding the visitor.

Home fragrances are also extended into the domain of cooking and spices: many ingredients in perfume are also used in medicine and the kitchen.

Fragrance: intimacy and beauty

In the last space, we enter the most private sphere: that of individual care and intimacy. Fragrance is an important agent in the intimacy of marriage for example. Jewellery designed to hold perfume or made of fragrant substances itself is also shown, like the necklace of scented beads from Tunisia, or the fibula with a small box for scented material, both in the gallery above (click on the image to enlarge the photo).

And finally, at the end of the exhibition, we take our leave as honoured guests: a small dispenser at the end of the exhibition drips perfume into the palm of our hand. A scent that stayed with me for hours, and illustrated how perfume connects. On the metro ride home, I caught a faint whiff of that same perfume…

…and sure enough, a fellow passenger carried a bag with the Institut du Monde Arabe-logo on it. We looked at each other and smiled. For a brief and fleeting moment, we were no longer strangers on the subway, but connected by our shared experience of a museum visit, and recognizing each other by our perfume.

Parfums d’Orient: a multi-layered exhibition

This exhibition was absolutely stunning. I loved how it combined seeing and smelling into one experience. The whizzing rose petals next to a large photo, the size of the photographs of the Omani souqs that transport the visitor, the combination of medieval manuscripts with replicas and layered scents…there is so much to see, learn and experience.

As a visitor, you do not need to worry this is too much of a ‘smell-fest’: should you wish to smell a particular scent, you’ll need to push a button that releases a small puff. It creates a moment of intimacy rather than abundance.

Besides smell, images and objects, throughout the exhibition you will encounter modern art woven into the storylines in a very natural way. Modern glass containers stand next to Fatimid crystal, an artwork evokes incense smoke whirling upwards, a colourful tapestry is actually entirely made of spices.

The exhibition shows how fragrance carries meaning, and continues to do so. From the ancient world to our day and age, this journey through the world of perfume is a journey through being human: the things we fear, the joy we feel, the discoveries we make, the natural world around us. Highly recommended: enjoy this sensory journey!

Parfums d’Orient: Sept 26, 2023 – March 17, 2024.

Institut du Monde Arabe, Paris. See more info on their website here.

Explore the world of fragrance in the course Scents of the Middle East!

More posts on exhibitions and museums? Browse them all here!

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Sigrid van Roode

Sigrid van Roode is an archeologist, ethnographer and jewellery historian. Her main field of expertise is jewellery from North Africa and Southwest Asia, as well as archaeological and archaeological revival jewellery. She has authored several books on jewellery. Sigrid has lectured for the National Museum of Antiquities in Leiden, Turquoise Mountain Jordan, and many others. She provides consultancy and research on jewellery collections for both museums and private collections, teaches courses and curates exhibitions. She is not involved in the business of buying and selling jewellery, and focuses on research, knowledge production, and education only.