The world’s smelliest museum?

29 March 2022


29 March 2022


Brunel’s SS Great Britain – Bristol’s top-rated attraction and #4 museum in the UK (TripAdvisor 2022) – is asking the public to help rate potential new smells this Easter.

The world’s smelliest museum is about to get a whole lot smellier

With Easter holidays just around the corner, we might all be anticipating the usual waft of freshly cut grass and sweet sprouting flowers as spring gets into full swing. However, life aboard the SS Great Britain did not smell quite as sweet.

In fact, some of the odours of a nineteenth century passenger ship would be enough to send you overboard. With passengers, crew and livestock living and working in the same space for up to 60 days at a time during the voyages to Australia, it would have been a particularly pungent place.

Scents have a powerful effect on the brain, a smell can be intrinsically connected to a place and time, evoking memories and emotions. Brunel’s SS Great Britain, the ‘world’s smelliest museum’, uses smell as a stimulus for time travel, transporting visitors right into the experience of life on board. Passenger diaries and letters give an amazing insight into the sounds, sights and smells which people lived with as they journeyed round the world. If a nineteenth century emigrant gagged at the smell in crowded cabins, then so can you!

Whether the reek of dirty linen in steerage sends you running to the top deck, or the mouthwatering smell of freshly baked bread leaves you ravenous for your rations, each scent places you into the shoes of a Victorian passenger or crew member who was embarking on their own extraordinary journey.

The award-winning museum in Bristol already includes hundreds of sights, sounds and smells onboard the historic ocean liner and throughout the two adjacent museums. Everything that you see, hear, and smell is based on real stories – and this Easter, that includes the smell of chocolate!

Visitors will smell their way back in time to 1845 and the SS Great Britain’s pioneer voyages. In the First Class Dining Saloon, they can share the excitement of travelling on the world’s biggest, most luxurious ship. A dramatic new soundscape will create an immersive story of the earliest crossings to New York onboard a ship that was considered an ‘experiment’ at the time. For the first time, our researchers have delved into our passenger logs and newspaper accounts to channel the pioneering spirit of those first ever passengers.

Those first passengers included Philippe Suchard – very likely the Swiss chocolatier, who had an appetite for travel and innovation. Alongside the new soundscape, the dining saloon will feature the smells of his irresistible speciality, as part of a taster menu of new scents for visitors to rate and review over the Easter holidays.

These historic smells are crafted by AromaPrime, a company that creates specialty scents for museums and tourist attractions.

Interpretation Manager, Natalie Fey, explains:

“We already have 15 smells across our museums, you can get a whiff of Engine oil in the Dockyard and of course discover the stench of the famous vomit in stewardess Annie Green’s cabin. This Easter, we’re cranking up the smells as we launch our most immersive experience on board yet.”

Founded in 1973, Aroma Prime supply Brunel’s SS Great Britain with a range of unusual smells. Speaking on the importance of scents throughout History, Liam R. Findlay, Scent Consultant at AromaPrime, said:

“Having life-like recreations of even the whiffiest stenches can be really important when helping museum visitors understand the atmospheres and conditions of the past. Knowing the very flavour of the air people breathed can help us put ourselves in their shoes, understanding their working conditions, their diets, maybe the state of their homes or even the unpleasant atmospheres of horrible situations such as fighting in trenches.

Both good smells and bad smells spark empathy, understanding and often personal, emotional responses to lives in the past.”

Experience the good, the bad and the ugly smells which wafted through the SS Great Britain in the 19th Century. Some of the new smells under consideration include the rich scents of dark chocolate and brandy, the homely aroma of roast beef, and the pong of boiled cabbage.


Top 10 smells already found at Brunel’s SS Great Britain

1. The smell of smoke in Brunel’s Duke Street Office
2. Engine oil in the dockyard
3. Bacon being cooked in the galley
4. Horse manure in the forward hold
5. Vomit in stewardess Annie Green’s cabin (sadly sea travel didn’t agree with her very much)
6. Stale, dirty linen in steerage
7. Freshly baked bread from the bakery
8. Urine floating from the communal toilet
9. The sterile smell of carbolic soap in the surgeon’s cabin
10. Rum in the gambler’s cabin.


The team at Brunel’s SS Great Britain will be explaining the process for choosing new smells and looking behind-the-scenes as new scents are created. Be sure to follow on social media and look out for blog posts delving behind the scenes in the lead up to Easter.

The new soundscape and smells in the First Class Dining Saloon are part of a season of ‘World food and global connections’ at Brunel’s SS Great Britain which, this summer, will include opportunities to taste Victorian food from some of the ship’s global ports of call and discover fascinating stories about passengers and crew.


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