There is no doubt that a visit to Mexico City is a sensory experience with sounds, sights, tastes and smells that are unique to its bustling streets and busy neighborhoods. Ask locals what Mexico City smells like and you might get a list of not so flattering answers.
The pollution and over-population problems certainly spice the city with a less than favorable aroma, but there are other more appealing smells that fill the air around the capital.
The smell of tacos, for example, or the deep scent of cempasúchil (marigold) flowers in the market during Day of the Dead, or even the aromas of second-hand books that permeate Calle Donceles in the historic center.
Another street in the city’s downtown area is filled with the sweet, spicy and pungent smells of perfumes and has been known for its perfumeries since the 1930s. Stepping inside one of these perfume apothecaries on Calle Tacuba, lined floor to ceiling with shelves of dusty glass bottles with cork stoppers, is like stepping back in time.
Take a number and wait in air thick with aromas of violets, roses and lavender until you are called to pick your scents from the line-up. Some of the less popular scents are likely still waiting to be decanted from the almost 90-year-old receptacles they were poured into decades ago.
Given Calle Tacuba’s sensorial history, it is perfectly fitting that Mexico City’s latest addition to its bulging selection of museums would revel in perfumes. Located opposite Perfumería Tacuba 13, one of the oldest and most iconic perfumeries on the street, the museum is in a stunningly-restored building constructed in the early 19th century.
In previous incarnations, the building has served as a flag factory and a military tailor — called La Principal — neither of which seems consistent with the building’s beauty and its tall ceilings and elaborate central staircase lined with gold-embossed decoration.
Currently entry to the museum is restricted to guided tours that must be reserved. While a permanent collection is expected to open early in 2020, there will be a selection of temporary exhibitions and they have certainly started with a bang.
The current collection showcases the work of six different artists from Mexico, Brazil and Poland, each showing unique pieces inspired by their olfactory senses.
Climbing the ornate staircase, we reached the first floor to be confronted with a giant inflatable figure. It took a while to see that it was a four-headed inflatable dog. As we listened to information about the piece and the artist, a scent started to fill the air and the keen-eyed among the group noticed that mist was coming out of small nostril holes.
An interesting reflection on a dog’s keen sense of smell, it certainly made for a striking entry piece.
Next, we were guided into a low-lit room, illuminated only by two burning candles in the shape of people. The human forms held positions of pain and anguish with wax dripping from their heads as if their brains were somehow spilling to the ground.
But, in contrast, the sweet smell of cinnamon from the candles intermingled with the scene.
Another fascinating part of the exhibition involved what appeared to be a scientific experiment complete with test tubes, Bunsen burners and distillation flasks. Drawing from cooking and the knowledge that our sense of smell is inherently linked to our sense of taste, we were asked to take sample droplets given on wooden sticks.
The challenge was to see what memories came to us. No sooner had the molecules hit our taste buds than almost everyone in the room was transported back to memories of their childhoods.
Other exhibits involved lily-infused space helmets, a variety of hanging bell-shaped objects into which you could climb and sample different smells.
There was also a room inspired by motherhood as well as the unique smells we emit as human beings that either attract or repel others. Think about an ex-partner, our guide suggested. Could we conjure up their smell? Surprisingly, many of us could.
Like much of the art and culture in Mexico City, this exhibit is world-class. Curated by Iván Edeza with such intriguing takes on the role that smell plays in our lives, this tour took participants on a rather emotional journey that conjured up images, memories and thoughts in each room.
The connection between smell and memory is said to greater than that of any other sense and this collection really illustrated that. Be prepared to be transported out of the moment and into your past during your visit to Mexico City’s perfume museum.
The permanent collection that will open to the public in 2020 has some 3,000 pieces, including books and receptacles dating back to the 19th century. They present the history of perfume in Mexico and beyond. If the temporary exhibition is anything to go by, El Museo de Perfume is likely to be a new favorite in the city.
The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10:00am to 6:00pm but reservations are required. Admission is 50 pesos with discounted rates for students and senior citizens. For more information, visit the MUPE website.
Susannah Rigg is a freelance writer and Mexico specialist based in Mexico City. Her work has been published by BBC Travel, Condé Nast Traveler, CNN Travel and The Independent UK among others. Find out more about Susannah on her website.