TATE perfume storiesUK fragrance house, Carvansons, has for the last few months been working in support of a Senior Lecturer from Liverpool John Moores University on a project all about scent and the impact that fragrance can have.

Our sense of smell is incredible and it is very closely linked to our memories. The fragrances we experience can play a crucial role in how we associate with memories, places and emotions. Michael O’Shaughnessy, a senior lecturer at Liverpool John Moore’s University, was keen to explore how this link could be put to positive use.

Perfume Stories

Michael has for the last few years been working on a project to explore the impact of scent. The project, Perfume Stories: The Time Travellers, is a series of multi-sensory and storytelling workshops based around scents and perfumes working with current prisoners within the UK prison system.

The project began back in December 2019 when his project Perfume Stories was unveiled at The Tate Gallery in Liverpool. His project, with the support of prison education provider Novus, focuses on providing a platform to initiate learning, storytelling and creative projects using scent as the catalyst.

The Power of Perfume: The Project

These sessions take place over several weeks where the learners are asked to smell the perfumes and fragrances. They are then encouraged to undertake critical thinking and make connections between the history and context of a perfume, whilst also considering their opinions and thoughts about the scents they are experiencing.

Michael O’Shaughnessy says;

“The response we have had to this project has been fascinating. For some of the participants these scents evoke childhood memories, some of them positive and some less so. They are, however, a different way of attempting to reach individuals who may have otherwise chosen not to engage with educational projects.” 

Michael continues,

“This alternative approach to learning and describing past emotions and experiences is something that the project participants may not have experienced before. They engage well with both history and the neuroscience behind what they are smelling. Their own stories can be really profound, but the intention is that they leave with greater knowledge and an understanding that learning can be liberating.”

Michael was approached by the prison education provider, Novus to trial the project with prisoners at HMP Liverpool. The response from the prisoners was so positive that it has since been introduced at HMP Hindley and HMP Buckley Hall. Novus are the education and skills provider in over 50 prisons across England and Wales. By working closely with Sarah Hartley, the National Lead for Creative Strategies and her team, Michael then looked at ways to elicit emotional and analytical responses from prisoners.

perfume stories CarvansonsFragrance as a Catalyst

During these sessions, the learners are also asked to write down and tell their own stories based on fragrances and perfumes. These scents are intended to evoke memories and provide stimuli for educational exploration. Studies have shown that people can remember a scent with 65% accuracy after 1 year compared to the loss of visual memory which is reduced to 50% after only a few months.

For many of the learners, these initial responses become starting points for other creative practices such as creating writing, poetry, spoken word or image making. They are encouraged to develop and explore these narratives in their chosen format.

This project directly links to the wider prison service agenda around rehabilitation and reform. One of the key goals for this project is to support the aims of Novus in addressing low literacy rates of offenders and evaluate the impact it may have on reoffending rates across prisons in the UK. These reform-orientated projects are critical in rehabilitation and in attempting to curb re-offending rates. These sessions not only provide a creative outlet but also build their confidence around learning.

Expanding the Fragrance Library with Carvansons

Michael had amassed a number of fragrances throughout his time and with the support of Carvansons, was keen to add additional scents to his portfolio.

Michael says,

“I approached Carvansons with this project because of their fragrance knowledge and expertise to see if they were interested in supporting the project and creating a couple of bespoke scents to help support the project.”


Vicki, Marketing Manager from Carvansons says,

“This was a really interesting project to be asked to be involved in. As manufacturers of fragrances and perfumes, we know how impactful scent and fragrance can be but the possibility of it being beneficial for society as a whole is intriguing.”

The feedback received from participants about the sessions has been incredibly positive.

Here are just a few of the comments from some of the participants;

The moment I first detected the scent, I pictured myself standing on a shore with huge waves crashing onto the beach. I can’t fully explain this image but it seems to be similar to a day in September 1988 when, aged 23 I stood on the beach at Aberystwyth looking out to sea daydreaming. The colour that came to mind, not unexpectedly was light blue. I’ve done a lot of education in prison over time and this project is totally different from anything I have done before.”

“I was a small child picking raspberries in the country lane, It was over 20 years ago. This scent has taken me right back to that moment”

“Cycling down hill with my father, who was a great cyclist and used to take us out  regularly in the country lanes.’

“How I respond to the past affects my future and my future can be seen in the mirror of my choosing.”

The project is currently being reviewed and Michael is hopeful that this sort of learning initiative will be developed further and within other locations across the country.



Additional Information

Michael O’Shaughnessy is Senior Lecturer in Graphic Design and Illustration at the Liverpool School of Art & Design at John Moores University. He has worked on large scale drawing works for Liverpool Everyman Theatre and Ørsted Energy and his clients have included Elbow & Universal Music / Penguin Books / The Observer/ Vogue Magazine. Perfume Stories: The Time Travellers is a research project in collaboration with Novus.ac.uk since 2020.

Carvansons is a world-leading creator and compounder of bulk fragrances used globally in the soap, cosmetic and household manufacturing sectors. Founded in 1941, Carvansons is a third-generation family-owned business, headquartered in Lancashire in the UK, with manufacturing and development facilities in various locations throughout the world.

Novus are the education and skills provider in over 50 prisons across England and Wales.