Interview with Amaury Bernard

Elaboration of a catalog raisonné based on the perfume-related archives of the Bibliothèque nationale de France

FdD Per Fumum : Why did you decide to apply? Can you tell us about yourself and your motivation for undertaking this project?

AB: I’m a contemporary historian*. I defended my thesis in 2019 on French, British and German combatants during the weird war from September 39 to May 40. I studied world conflicts in the first half of the 20th century. However, during my thesis, my research and even more generally, I became very interested in the history of senses and sensibilities. Applying for this post-doc gave me the opportunity to fully explore this track, particularly through perfume. It’s obviously a new intellectual and scientific challenge for me. The history of perfume is quite vast, covering a large part of the 20th century from the margins. It’s also the history of a product that touches on luxury and scent, and that’s what attracted me into the call for this post-doc position. Of course, there was also the fact that it was at BnF, because it’s an institution that’s almost impossible to ignore for any researcher. Joining it means being able to access different collections, many of which have not yet been explored by my peers and colleagues.

* In historians’ jargon, a specialist in the contemporary period, since 1789 or 1815.

FdD Per Fumum : How do you intend to approach this new work that is the creation of a catalog raisonné of perfume?

AB: I think that first, in order to have a broad vision, the idea is to write a bibliography from the collections of the BnF. Once this visibility is created, we have a first tagging, that is to say: the definition of key terms, useful notions and concepts that will be used to write this catalog raisonné.

Of course, in a second part, there is the question of exploring the library’s collections. These are present both on the Richelieu site and on all the other sites of the BnF, so the idea will be to survey the different catalogs of the different services. In a third step, once we have done this tagging, we must go back to the sources and the collections to organize all these documents, all these collections according to a scientific logic in order to create this catalog.

FdD Per Fumum: What are the main themes you’d like to tackle?

AB: I’m still in the early stages of trial, but the themes will depend on what we find in the collections and archives. The first themes I’ve been confronted with are the history of olfactory culture, scent and perfume. Then there’s the history of techniques and sciences. And finally, there’s the social history of perfume workers.

There are also other less obvious but nonetheless important themes. These include economics, the press and the history of the object, with advertising and how to create and sell an evanescent product that you can’t see but can smell. We could even mention globalization or the history of colonization, given that many of the raw materials that make up a perfume are produced outside Europe. 

Finally, we can’t talk about the history of perfume without its cultural and social dimension, its representations and its imaginary. The act of perfuming is about “smelling good”, personal pleasure and sometimes even erotic.

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