Friday, 7 August 2015

Why I Keep Thinking about Collections...

Reading Room, Wellcome Collection

Last night I braved the tube strike to visit the Wellcome Collection, and I spent some time in the Reading Room. I’ve always loved libraries and bookshops, so it’s perhaps no surprise that I feel very at home there, but there’s something more going on. Ever since early in this project I’ve become hooked on this idea of collections, archives, libraries – there’s something here for me, but what? I have proposed that as part of the project we create a digital archive of all the ‘Stories of Success’ we come across during our residency – these may be oral stories, videos, texts, or other media; drawings, photographs, objects etc. They may be collected from members of the public (perhaps with the help of storytellers, SparkLondon), from our empirical work, or from our collaborators themselves. But my interest in collection seems to even go beyond that.

Is it to do with memories? Helen Paris, from Curious, (see separate post to follow) told me about a collaborator of hers, a dancer, who made a piece about how our memories for places can be held in a bodily library. I’m interested in the intersection between bodily memory and narrative memory, and wrote about this in my PhD research on guilt. I know some of our collaborators will be working with dementia, and that Victoria has done a lot of work in this area, so there are links here. Perhaps memory and memorialising are becoming more important to me as I get older. Do I see this project as such a precious opportunity that it must not be forgotten? Am I keen to remember? And to ‘re-member’; to embody this conceptual work and make it real, tangible.

Is it about storage and legacy, or a need to create something tangible for posterity? Something that can be shared, and that can transcend time? Am I feeling the urge to hoard ideas, less then become suddenly scarce? Maybe I want to create a perfect collection, tracking down every possible variation until I have a complete set... I do feel that if we were given two years to explore success we should create something that endures; that has duration; that lasts beyond the two years. On Tuesday, Michael and I noticed that we need to think about the sustainability and the legacy of this project for the new application form – but it’s more than this. It feels almost like a moral responsibility or an compulsion for me. We (Michael and I) were discussing how having a significant piece (actually several linked pieces) of empirical work gives us a strong grounding for our work, from a disciplinary perspective, but will also provide us with material that we can revisit well beyond the life of this project. And that hopefully others in our group, and beyond, can explore too.

Or is this interest in collections actually more about multiplicity? This feels most likely. The reading room contains many different perspectives on mental health, for example, some from the service-user movement, some critical psychology, some mainstream, some from psychiatry etc. etc. Voices that wouldn’t normally be heard together. All these multiple voices are allowed to coexist in a library. In an exhibition (and also in the reading room), exhibits in different media are allowed to rest next to one another. Objects from different centuries, continents, peoples, and of different ‘values’ can sit together. The audience/reader/viewer is treated as an intelligent and curious individual who has the capacity to take on board multiple viewpoints and to stitch them together in their own, unique ways. It feels like there are increasingly few spaces in our world where such multiplicity is celebrated.

I think it is this – the multiplicity – that specifically interests me about the idea of collections, libraries and archives. Perhaps too often I surround myself with people who think like me – providing the familiar, the comfortable. In my discipline, my view of the world is fairly marginalised, so it’s perhaps no wonder that I find others like me, and we club together to create a safe ‘home’ for ourselves. However, this intellectual ghettoisation is very limiting. I feel more inspired by the conversations I’ve had with artists this summer, than by any journal article I’ve read. I’ve suddenly remembered how reading non-scientific literature, looking at artwork, and going to the theatre is more than just an enjoyable activity, but can feed directly into my research.

Perhaps with this project we can 1) create a collection of people. Perhaps this is the very special and unusual thing - a chance for people who wouldn’t normally share space to meet, talk and create. I strongly believe that if you put interesting people together in a room, interesting things will happen. Of course, we need some structure, outcomes and milestones, but we must allow for flexibility and spontaneity too. And so then 2), through cross-pollination, and sparking off each other, we can generate a collection of ideas. Maybe one equal to any library or museum collection.

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