World Sensorium in Zagreb, Croatia

In March 2010, World Sensorium was presented in Croatia. The exhibition took place at the Faculty of Science, Zagreb University as part of the event “Noć biologije.” The event drew a large crowd, bringing the public and media together with scientists and students to explore the physical world and the senses in an innovative way.

Professor Julija Erhardt, a Neuroimmunologist in the Department of Animal Physiology, Faculty of Science, University of Zagreb, and students of the Neurophysiology department organized the presentation of World Sensorium, introducing visitors to the concept of the world scent and the cultural stories of the botanical essences that comprise it.

Students surrounding globe

The World Sensorium paperwork was placed inside the globe built by students to symbolically represent the wholeness of the scent.

Students built a globe with the paperwork inside to symbolize the world’s participation, printed country statements and also made a scroll list of just the countries and their most culturally resonant scent. They also served as ambassadors of the artwork, first using the globe installation to introduce the concept to visitors, inviting them to smell the world social olfactory sculpture, and then asking them how they felt about it. The students reported that people were very impressed with the concept of the work and took pleasure in experiencing it, predominantly perceiving a distinctive “citrus-like” quality.

Among the first visitors to experience World Sensorium was Zagreb’s mayor, Milan Bandić.

I am extraordinarily grateful to the students and to Dr. Erhardt for presenting World Sensorium to the people of Croatia, and for compiling such fantastic primary research!

All the countries and their representative scents were written on a parchment in alphabetical order and rolled into a scroll. Visitors were curious to check which particular plants or smells had been associated with different countries.

Milan Bandic visiting World Sensorium

Milan Bandic visiting World Sensorium

Milan Bandić, Zagreb’s mayor, was one of the first visitors to experience World Sensorium olfactory sculpture.

Botanical Scents and Croatian Culture

The experience of World Sensorium, and the ethnographic research for its creation, drew people’s attention not only to the human relationship to the global natural world, but also a certain geographical knowledge they share as Croatians through their common and distinctive olfactory ecology. Geological perception draws heavily on smell, and Croatia has several plants that have been highly culturally influential for centuries.

In the World Sensorium formula, Croatia is represented by lavender (Lavendar angustifolia). This plant, which grows easily and naturally on the country’s rocky hills, is now also cultivated and distilled for several commercial purposes. Croatia has become one of the world’s largest producers of lavender essential oil.

Most interestingly, lavender has come to be valued as a symbol representing a perceived virtue of the country, and is now sold as a healing souvenir to visitors to Croatia, and as a reminder (memory trigger) of the innate tranquility of the air of the Croatian landscape.

Visitors smelling essential oils

After experiencing the World Sensorium, visitors smelled essential oils of the most characteristic natural scents of Croatia.

The islands of Croatia are rich in botanical history and the highly associative aromas of volatile oils. They are well known not only for producing and using lavender, but also heather, sage, rosemary, aloes, pine trees, laurel and many other indigenous aromatic plants. The island of Hvar in the Adriatic (called the island of Lavender) is particularly renowned for the production and distillation of rosemary and marjoram in addition to lavender, which have been traditionally used in Croatia for therapeutic, cosmetic, and hygienic purposes that continue to this day. I found a travel website for Hvar that provides some excellent descriptions on the history of these plants in Croatian culture (

One of the most famous folk products on the island of Hvar is "Queen's wash", the pure distillation of rosemary oil, which was recommended by travel writers from the 19th century for gargling the throat and against scurvy. The more massive production of rosemary began at the end of the 17th and at the beginning of the 18th centuries, most probably in Brusje first. There was even a Rosemary Cooperative in Grablje at the end of the 19th century. There is a panegyric to rosemary from 1796 in the Hektorovic family archives in Stari Grad:
We cook the leaves in pure white wine and then we clean our face, eyebrows and beard with it and then our hair will never fall but it will grow even more, and the face will remain bright... Leaves in the bed will scare away bad dreams, and maybe even cure cancer... It drives away harmful insects, removes the swelling of legs... If you plant it on your land, your fruits will be multiplied, and all the region will enjoy delight.
The distillate and also leaves later on were exported to Germany, New York, and even Brasil. The oil of marjoram is also very appreciated for massaging rheumatic joints. Hvar is not only the "home land of rosemary and queen's wash", but also the island of the pink fields of lavender. From the first three twigs found in Veli Grabalj, this aromatic plant of exceptional quality developed all over the fields of Hvar. The lavender oil is used for destroying moths and for the production of perfume and lotion. It blossoms in June, July, and August, and the medical part of the plant are flowers which should be picked as soon as they blossom.

The experience of World Sensorium reminds us that it is a human ability to locate ourselves in the world and know landscapes by smell, which linger in our memory. Natural smells mark our days in associations and metaphors of place, integral and interactive to our being.

—Gayil Nalls, 2010


World Sensorium

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