A first look inside Le Grand Musée du Parfum, a museum of scent in Paris

In the run-up to Christmas, Rue du Faubourg Saint-Honoré is decked out in seasonal finery; fairly lights and lanterns adorn the streets while the window displays of designer stores – Hermès, Lanvin – dazzle with elaborate displays. The boutiques and five-star hotels of the 8th arrondissement have long brought luxury-loving tourists to the area, but as of this week, there’s a new attraction in town – and it smells un peu différent.

Immersive perfume museum “Le Grand Musée du Parfum” – set inside a 19th-century mansion – is the first scent-centric attraction of its kind in the world. The museum’s content takes the form of a “multi-sensory” journey through the history and science of scent and perfume-making, featuring a host of hi-tech graphic, video and sound installations.

I am welcomed by the museum’s director and co-founder, entrepreneur Guillaume de Maussion, who was overseeing

the final flourishes before this week’s opening.

The olfactory journey starts in antiquity, with the woody pungency of Kyphi, a compound used by Ancient Egyptians to invoke the gods. The nose then travels via some rather unsavoury medieval odours to the Industrial Revolution. By the time we reach the 20th century, things start to get a lot rosier; video installations chart the consolidation of Paris as the centre of scent, while an elegant display explores the marriage of parfum and haute couture.

Today, France is still the world leader for perfume while fragrance and cosmetics are France’s third biggest export (after aeronautics and wine). Not surprising, then, that for the museum director, “if the world is going to have a definitive perfume museum, it’s going to be in Paris”.

And when perusing the exhibits, one can’t help but feel that a cultural space so unashamedly devoted to aesthetic taste and sensory pleasure could only occur in France. There are some pleasingly cheeky touches such as the “Seducers’ Gallery”, which documents great figures from history who used scent to woo – from Cleopatra, depicted in a pop-art portrait of Elizabeth Taylor, to Louis XIV. Visitors also have the chance to pull back a beaded curtain to reveal buttons releasing risqué odours such as cannabis, absinthe and – ahem – “libertine boudoir”.

Next, we learn how the sense of smell is connected to the parts of the brain that govern emotion and memory – which we are then invited to experience for ourselves in the “garden of scents”. Visitors stand under vast diffusers which blast out evocative smells – cinnamon, fire-smoke, as well as kid-pleasers such as Coca-Cola.

De Maussion tells me: “People want to interact with culture in a more cool way.” He hopes, too, that the museum will appeal to the increasing number of tourists who come to Paris for luxury shopping. For those who wish to splash some cash, there is a “concept store”, where patrons may select a perfume based on the smells they have enjoyed in the exhibits.

The third and final part of the museum space focuses on the role of the perfume maker, or “Le Nez” (nose) – and this is where the hi-tech whistles and bells reach their peak; one room contains a kind of giant Newton’s cradle carrying electronic orbs, each containing the scent of one of the perfume maker’s base ingredients.

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