Memory Palace

There was one speaker at last week’s Museum Ideas conference that sent me scurrying, the next day, to the V&A. Ligaya Salazar, late of that parish told us about curating Memory Palace, a temporary exhibition that remains until only the 20th of October. Not very long at all, so stop reading this and go.

Just go. Now!

Assuming, if you are still reading this, that you are doing so on your mobile device while taking bus, train or tube to South Kensington, I’ll continue.

With the idea of the “death of the book” hanging heavy in the Zeitgeist, the museum wanted to explore what a novel might be in the post-print age. They sought out a writer to collaborate with, and when his text was complete, worked with 20 artists to turn it into an exhibition.

I’d heard about it before, and thought it might be a “nice to do” thing if I had the time, but after hearing Salazar talking about it, I had to go. The thing that excited me most was her description of the hunt for the “right” author. She explained that while some authors start with a broad idea and hone in down to the final product, the V&A were looking for the sort of author that started by shooting off in all sorts of directions, exploring them until some turned out to be dead ends and another turned out to be the path to follow.  This second sort of author being more likely to produce a work that would fit the three-dimensional shape of the idea of a novel exhibition as opposed to a linear book.

Here's the slide that Salazar used to illustrate the kind of author they were looking for.
Here’s the slide that Salazar used to illustrate the kind of author they were looking for.

There is a book of course, which contains the the final text and some of the concept sketches for the pieces that appeared in the exhibition, as well as a couple of essays about its creation. In Curating a Book which Salazar co-authored with Laurie Britton Newell, they say:

Unlike reading a printed book, visiting an exhibition is not usually a linear experience. A narrative that moved around in time and that could be accessed in different ways seemed like a good starting point for a story that could be encountered physically. The search for an author began with writers who had previously written non-linear narratives.

In the end they chose Hari Kunzru, who had indeed played with form in short stories and books like Transmission and Gods Without Men. He, paid homage to regular V&A visitor Russel Hoban’s Riddley Walker, creating a future dystopia, where the “Magnetization” has wiped out all knowledge, and indeed the survivors of that event had effectively declared knowledge illegal. I won’t share more of the the story or the world, because I know you’ll be there shortly and I don’t want to spoil it, but when Salazar explained this conceit in her presentation I was immediately excited by its resonance with something I made years ago. When I started my design degree, we each had to do a short presentation to our cohort, introducing ourselves. I started mine by transporting my audience to a world where all knowledge had been lost because of an art movement called Mnemart, started by a mysterious figure called Matthew Tyler-Jones. Everything about this person had been forgotten, along with everything else, so I had my fellow students trying to piece together a biography of him from unexplained fragments of popular culture. Of course I didn’t let them discover anything about me. Instead I let them create an amalgam of Clint Eastwood, Jimmy Hendrix, Cyrano de Bergerac and others. Ah… such warm memories.

Ahem, back to the exhibition. it was great, I think, but also a missed opportunity. The works produced to “illustrate” it were humourous, challenging and at the same time, for a long-time comics reader like me, comforting and homely. I would have spent hours there, had the exhibition been larger than it was.

The narrative, as presented in three dimensions, turned out to be more linear than I was expecting. I felt, despite the intention to create a narrative “that could be accessed in different ways”, the final design and had succumbed to the curatorial conceit of (as they say later in the essay) “giving the visitor a narrative thread to follow.” So the visitor starts the experience by being funneled though an introductory section, that defines the terms used and indeed, gives an opportunity to read the book. Then a section clearly puts the story in context explaining the history of the world before allowing the visitor to wander more freely around the exhibition.

I’d have preferred the context to remain a mystery until later in the exhibition, so that I might have had the opportunity to piece together a possible chronology of my own before a “moment of revelation” (as Tyman Sylvester puts it) towards the end of the experience. I also wished more than twenty selected passages of the book had been available. It might have been fun to have others scattered amongst the permanent collection, to hunt down, or to intrigue visitors into exploring the exhibition.

Despite my disappointments I enjoyed myself and I recommend it. Sophia George starts as Games Designer in Residence this month, and I hope she comes up as something as lovely as, but maybe a little more ambitious than, this.

(Are you nearly there yet?)

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