Holding Memory in Your Hands

wall flower basket

There are always stacks of CDs coming and going around my desk. Up on the shelf over to left, though, is one that has been in place for a good few years now. Not a fancy looking one: it is a plain CDR with the words new music written across it in marker.

One very snowy night I’d gone up to Massachusetts to see a good friend play a concert. We’d been talking back and forth through e-mail and in person for a year or so about her next record. It was done. “In a few weeks I’ll have finished copies, with packaging and liner notes,” she said as we talked before the gig. “Would you rather wait and have me send you a copy then? or shall I make one now from my computer?” Of course, I wanted it right then. When I see that shiny silver disc, it reminds of that snowy night, of sitting on the floor of South Street Station in Boston the next day with people rushing by on the way to their trains while I was quietly listening to this gorgeous music, of friendship, and of other times I’ve heard her sing the songs she put on that album.

All this to came mind a few weeks ago when, at the Museum of Newry and Mourne in Newry, in Northern Ireland, I came across a booklet telling of the work of the Reminiscence Network and the Valuing Heritage by Valuing Memories Project.

Four museums across Northern Ireland, in Craigavon, Newry, Derry, and Omagh. each had put together reminiscence boxes. These are containers filled with objects having to do with a certain time period — the 1950s, for example, or the 1980s — or with a certain activity, going to the seaside, going to school, working in a trade. What the people of the museums did with these boxes struck me as both creative and generous.

road, rathlin island, northern ireland
A worker from the Reminiscence Network was appointed to each museum, and trained museum staff and volunteers in ways to talk with people about their memories , how to get such conversations started, and how to keep ideas flowing. Together they thought of ways they might connect with groups in each community. As it turned out, they had quite a few adventurous ideas.

The Craigavon Museum brought students at a primary school together with elders from nearby to sit and talk over what going to school is like now and what it was like sixty and seventy years ago. These conversations flowed easily as both children and seniors looked at and passed around pencils and slates and school books from the box.

In Omagh, workers took a box to a care facility for people living with depression and dementia, and found that handling the objects brought back memories and encouraged sharing that lightened the residents’ days — and those of the staff there too, who were glad to see their patients engaged and talking with workers and each other. In County Down, elders told their stories at a local library and materials in the boxes helped them and their listeners see what they were talking of, and sparked more stories. A heart and stroke recovery group started a scrapbook project after they’d spent time with a box, and a creative writing project is underway from a men’s group. Elders who hadn’t visited the museum in Derry were inspired to do so, and share their stories related to the things they saw there. Now many of them see the museum as a vital part of their days and visit often. At a community center, people from all generations gathered for a day long celebration of seaside holidays, sharing food and fun and stories inspired by working with objects in a box.

As these projects have unfolded, interest has come from other museums and other groups. Workers in these first projects have experience and knowledge they are glad to share. Personal and professional connections have been forged as well, and people touched by these projects now see their museums as resources and places of community and connection.

Powerful stuff from holding an object in your hand and thinking about it and sharing stories that go with it for you, I am thinking. I am thinking, too, that the friend who gave me that CD and I have fallen out of touch over the years. It might be time for me to tell her the stories I remember.

More about Northern Ireland’s Reminiscence Network and the Valuing Heritage by Valuing Memories Project.

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One Response

  1. wandering educators March 5, 2011

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