Memory Palace – V&A Museum

All photos;

Installation image of Sky Arts Ignition: Memory Palace at the V&A
© Victoria and Albert Museum, London

I’ll start with an admission that I am perhaps biased in favour of this exhibition concept – I love storytelling, I love exhibition design, and I love anything that transports you in to another world. I want to be immersed in something. Memory Palace offered just that – a walk-in book. A chance to be enveloped by a story, read it, feel it, see it.

The story begins with an ageless, genderless narrator speaking in first person. The setting is a future-London but after it has been devastated by an event called ‘the Magnetization,’ when all knowledge was lost to the world. What instantly struck me was this almost child-like voice for the narration, trying to grasp ideas and terminology that is second-nature to us in the present. Things like science, maths, computers. There are countless little references to our digital culture that just make you smile, especially if you have ever worked in the creative industries, such as the definition of Photoshop and internet. Even local references in the form of London locations misinterpreted (South Keen Singtown, Notting Hell and The Edge Where were my faves) make you smile when you recognise them.

I’d happily wax lyrical on the book alone (which may be another blog post, we shall see) but this is about the exhibition.

The overall space was airy, grand, lit where it needed to be but then darker where it added atmosphere. It was presented like any other exhibition – perfectly white-washed walls, clean floors, etc. I initially expected more artwork to be painted directly onto these surfaces, like stepping in to this other world just as Mary Poppins steps in to the chalk paintings. But as the story unfolds, and you realise you are IN the character’s own memory palace, the bare settings make sense.

The character has portioned off parts of his consciousness and devoted them to memories that are not his own, to lost knowledge that they are trying to make sense of. They feel they have some kind of duty to preserve this knowledge as the ruling class glorifies their ancestry as hunters and warriors. So you feel like the space is a museum inside someone’s head, each piece of knowledge given it’s own space to live and breathe.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that each piece is not related to the overall story – they all look very different after all. But when you imagine that this is someone’s collections of memories, they will have recorded them in different ways. The knowledge they are trying to grasp tended to be more visually startling, either rendered in colour and pattern or making reference to colours. Recent memories from recent experiences reflected what their environment is like – dull, grey, looming, and overpowering.

Trying to talk about this exhibition separate from it’s story is difficult, and that’s what I like about it. This concept perhaps wouldn’t work for classical pieces but it is perfect for contemporary practice. I mentioned a ‘niche’ earlier, and it will probably get me a few people saying ‘there’s no such thing.’ I live in the North where there IS such a thing – getting the ‘general public’ to visit an exhibition can often be an exercise in drawing blood from a stone. However, offer them something more to engage with and they might be interested. Unfortunately we live in a time where big names from art history will no longer draw in new audiences (outside of art students that is). People want the all-singing-all-dancing experience that might keep their kids quiet as well.

I found Memory Palace utterly beguiling. It was bound to captivate me as it ticked so many of my interest boxes – story, visual narrative, apocalyptic setting, disparity of reality with fantasy, preservation of knowledge. And I hope that this exhibition marks a switch towards more involved exhibition design and concepts.

If you can still get a copy of the book from the V&A shop then I highly recommend it.