Cultural amnesia

Rebecca Atkinson, 22.09.2015
The parallels between memory loss and the evacuation of St Kilda
In the past few years there has been a huge interest across the museum sector in providing outreach to people with dementia and other memory disorders.

Much of this work has focused on the positive benefits object handling and reminiscence can bring to those suffering from these conditions. Less common, but no less interesting, are projects based on the link between creative expression and wellbeing.

For example, the Whitworth in Manchester has offered visual art sessions using iPads to care home residents with dementia and their carers, and the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge in Canterbury is part of a research project looking at the effectiveness of art discussion with early onset dementia patients.

A new art exhibition at Liverpool’s Foundation for Art and Creative Technology (Fact), which I visited last week, made me look at the relationship between museums and reminiscence from a different perspective.

The exhibition, Lesions in the Landscape, is a solo show by Shona Illingworth that explores the impact of amnesia and the erasure of individual and cultural memory.

The centrepiece is an immersive film featuring a woman known only as Claire describing the impact of a sudden and devastating brain trauma that has left her unable to remember her past or create new memories.

This is intersected with archive film of the evacuation of the inhabitants of the remote Scottish archipelago St Kilda in 1930 and new footage of the islands today. Ruined stone huts, sheep, birds and scientists are all that remain.  

The end of 2,000 years of continuous habitation on St Kilda left a lesion in a cultural – and physical – landscape. This is brilliantly illustrated in birds-eye footage of people with torches walking through what’s left of a medieval village at dusk, searching continuously for something.

In another gallery, Illingworth has created The Amnesia Museum, which draws together film, still photographs and objects of and about St Kilda to map the landscape of amnesia.

The most powerful element to me is audio describing the titles of archive footage of St Kilda’s woman and children hiding from cameras during the evacuation. On the wall are stills from the footage, the faces blurred as they rush into houses.

What really struck me was the idea that once long-term memories are made, they exist forever. People with amnesia, dementia and other disorders don’t lose their memories as such – they simply cannot access them.

And, as Sarah movingly articulates in the film, it is our knowledge of our past life that enables us to have a vision for the future.

These ideas are central to what museums are all about, and made me wonder whether there are other ways museums can work with people with dementia to explore the power of collections and remembering the past.

The exhibition and accompanying programme of Amnesia Forums examining memory and cultural erasure are at Fact until 22 November. The exhibition will then travel to Sydney, Australia, the Outer Hebrides and London.


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Jonathan Gammond
MA Member
Access & Interpretation Officer, Wrexham County Borough Museum
01.10.2015, 00:05
I recall one of the elders who spoke in the BBC series 'Lost Kingdoms of Africa: the Kingdom of Ashante' making some really salient comments on the importance of remembering the past both for living now and for preparing for the future. In short any society that forgets and fails to understand its past is suffering from a form of dementia. Thankfully we know there are cures for this and one of those cures is the museum.