From smelly canals to fragrant cloves, the Mauritshuis makes people smell the past

The exposition will be called bygone – scents in colors. It is not yet known when the exhibition will open, because we have to wait for a relaxation of the corona measures. Partly for this reason, there will be a digital tour of the museum from next week, for which you can order a scent box with four corresponding scents in dry air atomizers to sniff at home behind your screen.

The scent adventure is not always fun, because in the old days it smelled so terribly in many places that many people back then did not even get used to it. For example, the canals were full of food waste, excrement and discharges from tanneries, among others.

That is why remedies were devised to protect people a little against it, such as a kind of scent balls, or ‘pomanders’, filled with fragrant ingredients, which you could hang on a chain around your neck.

Stench from the canal

There are nearly fifty paintings, drawings, prints and objects on display that tell the visitor about odor, health and (lack of) hygiene. Not all works and objects are scented by the International Flavors & Fragrances organization, but eight are.

For example, the exhibition by Jan van der Heyden features the painting View of the Oudezijds Voorburgwal, with a privat and a canal on it. This features a column with the stench they produced together.

Linen bleaching and putrefactive smell

From Jacob van Ruisdael there is View of Haarlem with bleaching fields. Then linen was bleached with agents that also stank in the wind for an hour. You will soon be able to smell what that was like in the Mauritshuis.

Jan Saenredam has the Stranded sperm whale near Beverwijk, with a rotten smell. There are also two precious pomanders, which could be filled with cloves, lavender or cypress, for example. How that was, will soon also be seen in The Hague.


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