Memory Palace at the Victoria and Albert Museum

Posted by Dr Jenny Kidd

The Memory Palace exhibition currently running at the Victoria and Albert Museum is an absolute treat for the eyes. That said, it’s quite a thing to get your head around.

In partnership with Sky Arts Ignition, the exhibition brings together a new fictional text by Hari Kunzru with 20 commissioned art installations by graphic designers, illustrators and typographers. It is designed to be ‘a walk-in book’, experiential, participatory and emotionally arresting.

The story (which can be purchased in book form) tries to create an immersive new narrative world, set in London a few hundred years from now, after ‘the world’s information infrastructure was wiped out by an immense magnetic storm’. The consequences of this (as in many other treatments of this familiar narrative) are a repressive regime where all acts of creativity and documentation are outlawed, and where acts of memory are forbidden. The world as we know it is reduced to fragments and misrememberings.

The installations are variously humorous, reflective and surreal, combining to make us question our relationships with information, the written word and our own memory processes. Most explicitly, in the final interactive installation by designer Johnny Kelly that asks us as visitors to this story-world to volunteer, in the spaces of the exhibition itself (via tablets) the memories we would least like to forget. Visitors hunch over the tablet screens, drawing and writing, some for many minutes, in what has become a seemingly urgent endeavor; the banishment of forgetting.

The exhibition as a whole (including the online micro-site) raised questions for me about the extent to which the museum is a fictionalising medium. It is not contentious to assert that the things museums do to objects (catalogue, restore, display, exhibit) mean that their ‘truth’ claims are questionable. Museum professionals are well aware of the politics of display, it’s partiality, and its omissions. All forms of history have faced the fictionalizing charge in recent years, such as Alan Munslow’s assertion that; ‘history does not… just tell stories about the past, it is itself a storied form of knowledge’. Yet overwhelmingly, visitors still turn to museums for their seemingly authoritative, measured and objective take on particular heritages, objects and events.

Memory Palace is thus an interesting step into the realms of narrative, which I suspect is emboldened by the experimentation with transmedia, immersion and experiential storytelling elsewhere in the cultural realm. In 2008, the Centre for the Future of Museums predicted such a turn:  ‘Over time, museum audiences are likely to expect to be part of the narrative experience at museums’ (CFM 2008: 18). Moreover, visitors have also – always –  created their own narratives from the range of objects, interpretations and fragments which they find in museums, every one, potentially, being different. What was notable for me was just how intently myself, and others in the exhibition, read every scrap of text on the wall. I cannot remember the last time I was provoked to do that in an exhibition and for me that was a very intriguing realization.

So now I’m going to be thinking through some further questions: Could any other museum house such an exhibition? Or is there something about the particular magic of the Victoria and Albert Museum that legitimises it? Might there, in time, be a backlash against narrative in the museum? Or is it ok as long as we call it narrative and not fiction (the V&A are uniquely bold in this respect)? How important is textual cohesion in the museum? Does such an approach undo the institution, rendering it no more than a piece of an elaborate jigsaw of meaning? And was it ever anything more?