Flash Points

The Museum as Memory Palace

Illustration by Swanny Mouton.

How museums naturally take advantage of a peculiar quirk in our brains.

A Place to Hang Your Facts

In the mid 1880s, Mark Twain devised a children’s game he felt would boost the memory of young children. The game had an unusual format and broke outside the traditional confines of a board game. Important dates and events were written on small index cards, and the players were instructed to place the cards in an outdoor setting (like the backyard or a driveway) and find strategic nesting places for the memory cards. Next, the player would explore the yard and store the facts in their memory. After absorbing all the facts, the players compete, in typical memory game fashion, to see who recalls the most information.

Twain originally conceived the idea to help his children memorize the reigns of British royalty. The monarchs were spaced out according to the length of their rule, such that the distance represented the duration of their reign, thereby reinforcing the historical chronology.

The game, as it turned out, was an utter financial failure.  It was called, “Mark Twain’s Memory Builder: A Game for Acquiring and Retaining All Sorts of Facts and Dates.” Shockingly, few students in the 1880s wanted to spend their leisure time memorizing facts and dates.

Twain later despaired in a letter: “If you haven’t ever tried to invent an indoor historical game—don’t.” Despite his pessimism, he was onto something powerful about memory and space, something that museums can use to their advantage.

All the World’s a Stage, for Memory

In the 1500s, an Italian scholar and philosopher named Giulio Camillo conceived of an arguably outrageous plan to facilitate the memorization of all the knowledge in the world. Called the “theater of memory,” Camillo designed an amphitheater-like space that would house an encyclopedic volume of information. The building was to be a Xanadu for the mind; a half-moon shaped stadium with multiple tiers, each level packed with a series of retractable drawers containing a series of printed scrolls, much like a library. However, it differed from a library in that the space was organized to maximize one’s potential memory.

Reconstruction of Camillo’s Memory Palace from Frances Yates’ Art of Memory.

A visitor to the “theater of memory” would orient themselves on a centrally located stage and gaze out into the structure. The amphitheater was designed in seven sections, with seven arches, and seven elevated tiers. Each area was associated with signs and symbols, theoretically creating a matrix of combinatorial associations by which to store memories. The concepts were never realized, but on his deathbed, Camillo dictated his ideas and architectural plans. Like Twain’s game, the structure took advantage of a physical space to amplify memory. And while the “theater of memory” never got off the ground, the idea of storing memories in a physical space is tied to a classic mnemonic technique: the memory palace.

Mapping it All Out

Camillo’s designs have their foundations in a mental device called “the method of loci.” Before the widespread introduction of paper, Greek scholars would use the method to memorize lengthy speeches and passages from books.

Here’s how it works. First, you remember a familiar physical space, such as an old school or your childhood home. This is your memory palace. Now, find some items to occupy the space. Start modest with something like a to-do list. Each item should be represented by a simple, memorable image. Weed the garden = dirty trowel. Buy new toothbrush = pearly smile. So on and so forth. You then proceed to mentally tuck the things you want to remember into familiar physical spaces, known as the loci. Later, to recall the list, you float through the imagined space, collecting the memories along the way. The idea is that the mind is much keener at remembering physical spaces and tactile objects than flat, homogeneous media, like books or screens. Everyone uses this part of their brain, but those who are trained tend to maximize the potential. Now, with neurological imaging devices, scientists are starting to understand how this works.

In a brilliant 2002 study, British scientists set out to determine what exactly was going on in the brains of superior mental athletes. Using an MRI, they tested ten individuals who had competed in the World Memory Championships. “…We found that superior memory was not driven by exceptional intellectual ability,” the authors said, “or structural brain differences. Rather, we found that superior memorizers used a spatial learning strategy, engaging brain regions such as the hippocampus that are critical for memory and for spatial memory in particular.”

In other words, mental athletes capture information by converting details into images and map them along familiar physical spaces. However, the topographic coordination of images is a strategy that is not exclusive to mental athletes. Exhibit designers, curators and museum-goers experience the phenomenon in galleries all the time. We just might not be aware of its implications.

Moonwalking the Mind

Many of these ideas are wonderfully articulated in Joshua Foer’s recent book Moonwalking with Einstein, which chronicles the author’s experiences learning this and other techniques, then entering a memory competition. (For a great story and a full history lesson about the art of memory, I would highly recommend grabbing the book).

Foer speaks about memorization on an individual level, but the same is true on an institutional level: A good museum exhibition is a hybrid of Twain’s history game, the Theater of Memory, and the Method of Loci. We take it for granted that museums are excellent venues for education, but what makes them so special? Exhibits orchestrate ideas over space and time, harnessing the power of these mnemonic devices. Museums have the ability to not only capture our attention and educate, but to take advantage of an innate neurological characteristic that benefits memory.

If a memory palace can help a mental athlete win a memory competition, artifacts in a physical space can greatly enhance one’s ability to engage and remember ideas about art. However, museums add yet another dimension to the package.

Fine Art, Topography, Narrative

Museums have the power to take the idea of a memory palace and combine it with an even more powerful device: Storytelling. Narrative is to the brain, what protein is to the body. It powers, sculpts and coheres our thoughts. “Storytelling is not a luxury,” archivist Robert Rosen said in a lecture, “ it is an absolutely core need. Story is how we make sense of the world. It’s how in the flux of experience, with all of the things coming and going, with all of the little bits and pieces, we put them together.” In short, a good narrative has the power to embed an idea deeply in the mind.

Take a plot and weave it through a space and you have an incredibly potent educational tool. Narrative exhibits are not just effective for the novelty–they actually make the experience stickier in the memory, and ultimately, easier to share with others.

Plot Points

The ultimate realization of a museum memory palace is a narrative deconstructed and displayed in a house. A particularly intriguing illustration of this resides in an historic district in Istanbul. In April of this year, the author Orhan Pamuk opened the doors to a new museum called The Museum of Innocence, based on his novel of the same name.

Orhan Pamuk's Museum of Innocence. Photograph: Masumiyet Müzesi.

Readers will find an admission ticket to the museum on page 520 of the novel, which grants them access to the exhibit. As they pass through the narrow corridors of the house, they find thousands of artifacts in glass cases related to the book’s plot.

“And as I softly bit her ear,” one line reads, “her earring must have come free and, for all we knew, hovered in midair before falling of its own accord.” In the first of 83 display cases, one for each chapter of the book, the visitor will find a small, unpaired earring.

As they continue along, the reader, now the museum-goer, will become immersed in cases and drawers filled with artifacts evoking the mood of 1970s Istanbul and throwing the plot into relief. However, the museum isn’t exactly inspired by the book. “I conceived the novel and the museum together,” Pamuk has said. In a way, the author is the perfect curator, one who has a holistic vision for design, story, and content.

The museum is constructed very much like a memory palace. This type of museum represents an incredible educational opportunity. Imagine the student who reads the story, and then walks through a physical dissection of the narrative. It’s like immersing yourself in a different language in a foreign country as opposed to learning from a textbook. The experience of walking through the space, encountering objects that symbolize plot points will doubtless augment the memory, and the ability to later recall. It’s a story that could be remembered for a lifetime.

Michael Neault is a content and media producer at Second Story.