By Meg O’Neil
When Kate McLean was growing up in the small village of Hartsfield in southeast England, maps played a large role in her life. After all, it was in that same village that author A.A. Milne wrote “Winnie the Pooh,” creating a map of the Hundred Acre Wood and Pooh Corner – the imaginary landscape where he set his children’s classic book.
Today, McLean has become a map-maker of her own, but not in the typical fashion. Her newest map of Newport is a “smell map” – the first of its kind in the country.
McLean describes her “smell map” as a portrait of a city created by bottling essences of smells found there, and creating a visual map based on where those smells are located.
She has already created smell maps of Edinburgh, Glasgow, and Paris, and will debut her Newport map for several weeks as a static exhibit at the Gateway Visitor Center from Aug. 19 through Sept. 9.
McLean, who is a graphic designer and teacher, says that when she designs a map, she removes all geographical data, leaving no street names, no buildings – nothing. “All you are left with is a view of where these smells in the city originate and which ways the smells tend to shift based on the prevailing winds,” she says. “From there, you try to work out where you are in the city.”
To capture the smells for her Newport smell map, McLean collected samples of smells that she will bottle to present as part of the exhibit. Visitors will smell what is in the bottles and then will try to figure out where in Newport those smells are located. She has spent several weeks in Newport this summer collecting data, with many walks along the city’s beaches, Cliff Walk, harbor front, Ballard Park, and other locations. She says some will be pleasant scents while others may strike the olfactory system in an unpleasant way.
McLean admits it’s something that’s never been tried here before, but adds that the support she has received from the Newport community has been overwhelmingly positive. “Newport is a good-size city to work with,” she says. “The friendliness here has been amazing. I presented something that was funky and weird, and everyone has been interested and wanted to help. It’s a completely different attitude here compared to other cities and it’s that adventurous nature here that makes it work.”
According to McLean, the purpose of the smell map is twofold: First, for a tourist audience to become more aware of the smells they will encounter when they walk around town, and second, for the community. “For them, it’s interesting to look, smell, and know where these smells originate,” she says.
“What I really want is for the people of Newport to actually identify the smells that they think represent their city,” she says. “In doing so, it creates stories that I want to collect that would reaffirm how Newport smells. When you are aware of the scents as you walk around, and then go home and suddenly smell something that reminds you of Newport, it creates a story. It makes you think a little bit more about a sense that we don’t use so much.”
With all the smells that Newport has to offer, McLean gives the City-by-the-Sea’s overall scent a thumbs up.
For those who want a first-hand experience of what goes into smell-mapping, Mclean is leading several guided tours around the city. The next smell walk will take place on Tuesday, July 24 at 5:30 p.m., and starts at the Newport Visitor’s Center on America’s Cup Ave.