Ruth Barker

Museums as Memory; Memory as Mind.




Text for VAGA (Visual Arts and Galleries Association) leaflet for the Museums Association's annual conference.



For the populations of the wealthy West, museums retain their inarguable value both as buildings and (perhaps more fundamentally) as distillations of a far broader and more complex idea. The museums within our cities, townships and hamlets are physical manifestations of a specific cultural desire. The impulse they represent, for collecting objects to stand in for otherwise absent or non-visible places, people and conceits, finds parallels in the Memory Theatre of Guilio Camillo;


“He calls this theatre by many names, saying now that it is a built or constructed mind and soul, and now that it is a windowed one. He pretends that all things that the human mind can conceive… after being collected together by diligent meditation, may be expressed by certain corporeal signs in such a way that the beholder may at once perceive with his eyes everything that is otherwise hidden in the depths of the human mind.”[1]


Museums are the built or constructed mind and soul of our day-to-day culture. They are our mnemonic aids as we call to mind those who have gone before us. Like all mnemonic systems however, museums can only provoke the recall of that with which we have associated their contents.


[1] Viglius Zuichemus, writing in Padua in 1532, and describing Camillo’s ‘theatre’ in a letter to Erasmus. As cited in Yates, Frances A., The Art of Memory, Penguin Books, 1966, pp 135.