Wanted! A Grand Unifying Theory

I want a grand unifiying theory. Not one for physics (that would be too easy!) but one for the sorts of work that museums do with older people. I want a theoretical grounding that can underpin (and give value to): reminiscence work, creative activities, holistic (cognitive) stimulation, tours of stores with tea & cake. All of it.

When a colleague from Jamtli & I gave a talk at a conference in London, we got some well-mannered grief from a few people for focusing on reminiscence. There is, I think, a turn away from reminiscence in some quarters and towards creative activities. Part of this is motivated by a desire to forget memory and focus on who people are now. ‘Forget Memory’ is a book by Ann Basting. Basting’s work is fantastic – humane, compassionate, insightful and inspiring. Her work has changed people’s lives for the better as well as exploring the potential for creativity as therapeutic tool. I feel churlish arguing with all of this – but I’m going to.

I want to argue with the notion that we can be entirely in the moment and I want to argue that there is no disconnect between reminiscence and creativity.

A recent article in The Psychologist magazine (April 2017) drew on the hypothesis that the human capacity for autobiographical memory emerges out of our capacity to imagine future possibilities. The authors used this to draw memory and creativity much more closely together. Thus, thinking about the future and thinking about the past are both imaginative acts. I also want to argue, along with others, that if recalling autobiographical memories is actually an act of reconstruction, which is responsive to the audience, then it should be seen as a form of storytelling. However, I also want to draw on work that sees narrative as something that incorporates more than just words but remains open to the embodied nature of human being and doing.

From the other side, as I read through data about creative activities with older people, I see people drawing on their past in order to be in the present. Participants recall their past working lives or holidays they went on as a way of understanding and giving meaning to the activity in hand. More fundamentally, and more speculatively, I would argue that most people already have an understanding of what it means to do art and that shapes what they understand of what they are being invited to do in a session. (Gadamer’s notion of ‘games’, at least in the way that Risatti described it, may be helpful here.)

So… that’s the argument I’m going to make. Now all I have to do is write/edit the book!

About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
This entry was posted in creativity, museums, reminiscence. Bookmark the permalink.

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