Recall, Relive, Remember
By: Jackie Capone, FIT
The Exhibition and Experience Design graduate school program at the Fashion Institute of Technology explores how designers can improve and create exciting experiences that share a story. Through multiple courses, the program teaches students how to develop professional client-based exhibitions from initial concept, to research, prototyping, and finally how to present final concept presentations. For the program’s graduate school thesis, I explored how exhibition design and museum collections can improve the lives of individuals who have dementia and Alzheimer’s. Using institutions’ artifact collections, I specified new design parameters and created an exhibition experience to help individuals who have dementia and Alzheimer’s to have a moment of self-clarity and reestablish family bonds that are fading away.
The Re: recall, relive, remember exhibition will have six main areas, focusing on explaining the disease of dementia, providing community advice for caregivers, and presenting the main gallery space for individuals with dementia to interact with museum objects, a dance floor, and a maker space. Each area is designed explicitly with dementia-related guidelines and parameters to meet the needs of each level of dementia and Alzheimer’s individuals, from mild through severe cases. The parameters will include sensory-related activities, audio moments, and highlight vibrant color and large italicized font to excite and incite the dementia viewers’ attention. With these parameters, I believe we can create new design tools for exhibition designers to help reach all different levels of audience types with memory loss.
To understand how objects and design can help improve exhibitions for individuals living with dementia and Alzheimer’s, I broke my research into two parts. The first part of my study was to understand how we form memories and how memories of objects help build an understanding of self-identity. From that point on, I had to know how design was improving the lives of individuals with dementia and set personal design parameters to make the clearest and calmest exhibition for individuals living with this disease.
Objects are essential tools to help individuals form self-identity and memories.People’s instincts and drives to collect and preserve objects are most often due to an item’s connections with significant memories and moments in time and place. Museums, on a meta level, share with their constituents a love for objects; this is a powerful connector between museums and the individual. This connection can be used to help people with memory-deteriorating neurological diseases reestablish self-identity through museums’ vast collections of objects. Memories are sparked when individuals with dementia and Alzheimer’s touch and handle objects, giving them an understanding of who they are again. Most people can look around their home and look at an object and remember a memory attached to it. Objects trigger an array of emotional responses. No matter what the response, the connection signifies an important moment in that person’s life. In “How Our Brains Make Memories,”an article for Smithsonian Magazine,Greg Miller stated:
For outside research, I also made sure to visit my grandmother’s dementia-oriented adult day care program. She goes to the dementia (memory care) adult day care sponsored by Meals on Wheels in Nanuet, New York. I spoke with the director, Diane Hill, for a very brief but informative conversation. I took three main takeaways from our conversation: Music is vital in helping calm individuals with dementia, craft activities like coloring and puzzles help keep them active, and having a caregiver that is not a family member often leads to better behavior. She agreed with some of my research that some of the best things for individuals with dementia are for them to be with others like themselves and to get them mobile and out of the house. Having talked with Diane, I applied specific parameters to the sections of my exhibition. I made sure especially to include a craft table, dance floor, and docent-led experience, as well as set my parameters for having to include audio again, sensory activities, and individual-led experiences.
In my continued research, I found other designers exploring this form of design as well. I came away with three critical parameters to include in my design. A retirement village in Weesp Netherlands called Hogeweyk had recreated an entire village for individuals living with dementia to be surrounded by a replica town setting that brings them back to when they were younger (Raak ICT BV). Physically changing surroundings helps individuals with dementia relive their past and spark memories, giving me one of my first parameters. My second parameter came from a dementia driven design from Germany, in how bright contrasting colors like red and yellow grab the attention of individuals suffering from dementia and Alzheimer’s. They give visual cues of how to navigate around a space (HEWI). Lastly, Sans Forgeticafont was designed specially to help people retain information better when studying. The font is designed with a slant, similar to the slant in italicized typefaces, and specific pieces missing within the letters (RMIT).These design choices force the reader to concentrate harder to remember the content of the information, leading them to remember the information better.
With my prototyping, outside research, and personal research, I came up with these specific design parameters I feel would best improve exhibitions for individuals living with dementia and Alzheimer’s:
1. All activities have to have a sensory component. For example, all objects are to be touched and audio to be listened to.
2. Space should have areas for rest and reprieve as well as physical activities related to the physical change of the space.
3. Fonts should be large and bright as well as italicized in certain areas to be able to challenge the reader to remember and retain the information.
4. Colors of the exhibition should be calming with hints of the vibrant color yellow to lead the viewers throughout the space.
5. The option of having an individual experience within the exhibition with a docent non-family member to help calm and collect the individual.
6. All stories should be collected and shared with all visitors, either through audio or visual.
Contribution to the Field
Through my research, I found that museums have been creating programs for all age groups, from makerspaces for young and adolescent learners, social media experiences for teenagers and young adults, and art walks and classes for the middle-aged and elderly. Museums have great programs for the elderly but lack specific exhibition spaces designed for people with dementia and Alzheimer’s. Dementia is a growing epidemic in the United States; according to the Alzheimer’s Association, by 2050 more than 14 million Americans will have Alzheimer’s disease. Every 65 seconds someone in the United States develops the disease. (Alzheimer’s Association) Museums can use their expertise to create elegant, engaging exhibitions for the growing population of elderly people living with dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Through interacting with my own grandmother, I have noticed three social elements that define dementia: loss of memory, unexpected emotional needs, and the loss of the understanding of self-identity.This form of decline often comes with mental illness like depression, anxiety, and confusion. BBC News explains, “We think about dementia as a problem with memory, but it is really behavioral” (BBC News). One way that individuals with dementia can regain an understanding of self, calm their confusion and anger, and remember important memories is to interact with objects.
Museums want their objects to tell stories of the past so that visitors learn specific parts of history. I believe such objects can spark moments of clarity and pieces of their own personal history for individuals with dementia. Museums want to be seen as places for comfort and calm, and to be more than a building filled with objects. They want to reach out to new and growing communities through the use of their objects and design. I would propose setting my exhibition project at an artifact-based institution, so the museum’s collection can to be touched and handled by individuals living with dementia, having the individuals with dementia interact with the objects in a way that will spark forgotten memories to be recorded and treasured by their family and friends forever.
The exhibition will also take the opportunity to bring awareness to this growing disease and help a community of family and caregivers working with these individuals on a daily basis. Through my research it is key to keep dementia individuals engaged in community activities, and museums can use exhibition-based design tools to create spaces to be seen as a form of outlet for family and friends taking care of individuals with this disease. Research has shown great improvements for mood and clarity when individuals with dementia and Alzheimer’s are taken out of a sterile medical environment and taken to a warm and inviting space. By further understanding how to use design tools to engage individuals with memory loss, we can only improve the study of how to communicate to all different levels of communities through experiential design.
Kandel, who won a share of the 2000 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, found that to build a memory that lasts hours, days or years, neurons must manufacture new proteins and expand the docks, as it were, to make the neurotransmitter traffic run more efficiently. Long-term memories must literally be built into the brain’s synapses. Kandel and other neuroscientists have generally assumed that once a memory is constructed, it is stable and can’t easily be undone. Or, as they put it, the memory is “consolidated” (Miller).
Memories physically change the chemical makeup in our brains. Forming these memories through objects is related to episodic memories, which are memories of specific personal experiences. As stated in the article “In the Brain, Memories Are Inextricably Tied to Place” by Robinson Meyer,“They call this process episodic memory formation: the locking of ideas and objects to a single place and time, to forming associations between different stimuli” (Meyer). Episodic memories are the long-term memories that help form how we see ourselves. Objects are important in forming these memories because they are the visual representation of a moment in time that defines our self-identity. The objects trigger a chemical response in the brain for the episodic memory to come to mind.
Through my research I found a case study from the Archives of Clinical Neuropsychology, “The Influence of Personal Familiarity on Object Naming, Knowledge, and Use in Dementia”(Giovannetti ).This case study explores how patients with semantic dementia (SD) transition to assisted living homes more efficiently when their personal objects surround them. Semantic dementia is a neurological disease that causes people to develop extreme memory loss and the inability to do everyday activities like speak, problem-solve, and self-manage. People with dementia lose their ability to remember people and places. This study demonstrates that patients recognize and decipher the purpose of objects that are their own.
These studies have shown that individuals with SD are better at identifying and using their personal objects (e.g., their comb) versus unfamiliar analogs of the same object(e.g., the examiner’s comb; Bozeat, Lambon Ralph, Patterson, & Hodges, 2002 ; Snowden, Griffiths, & Neary, 1994 ). Thus, preservation of personal belongings, which are an integral and easily transportable component of the home context, might facilitate everyday functioning following relocation. (Giovannetti 607)
Additionally, results on the Script/Semantic Generation task revealed that the personal object advantage occurred at the level of conceptual knowledge of tasks and objects. This supports Funnell’s (2001) position that personal objects are tightly linked to script/event knowledge of frequently performed actions.(Giovannetti 612)
I believe this case study is helpful in understanding why we connect with objects on multiple levels, in showing that when patients are losing their memory, they still have a connection with objects that are their own (see Fig 2.1). I believe it puts great importance on our understanding of the emotional needs we put on objects. While this study focuses on how personal objects help form memories, I incorporated the theory that any object that had a purpose in one’s life could help regain a moment of clarity. Using museum objects from historic moments, or common household items, I believe can have the same effect. For example, an “Uncle Sam” poster from World War II could trigger memories in individuals based on its cultural importance in history and commonality in that era.
In addition to researching the basis of how objects help form our understanding of self-identity for memory, I wanted to find ways in which design has improved the lives of individuals with dementia and Alzheimer’s and create a list of design parameters I believe would improve exhibition experiences for these individuals. My first instinct was to go and talk with my grandmother. I set up multiple times to prototype with her using objects I knew she would recognize and music to try and help elevate her mood. Through hours of talking with her, I discovered that individuals suffering from severe cases of dementia could be easily distracted and their moods can change frequently. I found it essential when talking with my grandmother to include any form of audio; this was best to get her to remember and communicate again. One specific example I had was with a 1950’s Brownie camera as the object. I had sat down with my grandmother and wanted to start a conversation about the object; at first, she was confused and repeatedly asked me what the object was. I decided to make a change to the situation, and I started to play her favorite song by Frank Sinatra. Once the music began to play her mood elevated, and she grabbed the camera and started to tell me stories about World War II. She explained that when she worked at a medicine factory that she and her girlfriends would take a bunch of photos together and send them overseas to their boyfriends in the service. It was a very personal moment for me, but I also learned a great deal about design at that moment. For my exhibition I had to have multiple forms of sensory activity which overlapped audio and tactile activities—setting my first parameters of design for my exhibition.
Implications of Theory and Practice
Re: recall, relive, rememberis a family-guided or docent-led experience for family and friends of people living with dementia to reestablish bonds and share memories. The exhibition would be divided into six main spaces, which were designed with one or a combination of the design parameters established in my dementia research. The six main areas are: Re: Learn focuses on explaining the disease of dementia, Re: Advise provides community advice for caregivers, Re: Connect is the main gallery space for individuals with dementia to interact with museum objects, Re: Cord is an area to record and share memories, Re: Step is a dance floor, and Re: Think is a maker space. Individuals with dementia are invited to go throughout the area at their leisure to touch and hear objects from historical moments throughout their lifetime. The exhibition space invites visitors to sit and share stories that can be recorded and treasured at a later date. The flexible open space attracts visitors to decide which object or song brings about the happiest memories. This approach offers visitors with dementia a moment to reflect on their own past and regain a moment of clarity to be shared with family and friends for years to come. The exhibition also gives caregivers and family members a calming experience to talk with their loved ones again, reestablishing needed communication.
Each section of the exhibition is designed to progress with the level of progression of the disease, starting from mild to severe cases of dementia and Alzheimer’s. The exhibition progresses from section to section, increasing its interactives and objectives with the progression of severity the disease the viewer has. Before all visitors enter the exhibit, they are given a tape recorder to record and memorialize all memories to be shared during and after experiencing the exhibition.
Mild to Moderate Sections:
The first few sections of the exhibition help individuals with mild to moderate cases of dementia regain the most from their experience. The Re: Learn and Re: Connect parts of the exhibition use the parameters of sensory-based activities and audio-driven information. All main areas of the exhibition with the most relevant information are highlighted in yellow with large italicized titles. Re: Connect is the central area of the exhibition, which is an ample open space with ADA- specified tables covered in objects for viewers to touch and handle. The main reason why this area is specially designed for mild to moderate cases of dementia is because individuals with mild to moderate cases of dementia have a higher probability of having better mobility and dexterity to handle objects.
Within the large main gallery there is a section specially designed for more moderate cases of dementia; this area is called Re: Cord. This area consists of a few interactive kiosks with the museum’s extensive artifact collection saved digitally. With the collection preserved digitally, participants with limited mobility can sit down and look at an array of objects they believe would trigger a memory. The kiosks are also designed to have audio cues for each object to help participants have another sensory connection with the object. This area was designed explicitly after my prototyping session with my grandmother, who needed prompting with more visual and audio cues to spark memories.
Two main sections of the exhibition designed especially with severe cases of dementia and Alzheimer’s in mind are the dance floor and maker space. These sections follow both the audio parameter and the physical change of the space parameter. The dance floor is designed to help elevate the moods of participants with music. Music is essential from my research to help calm and energize people living with dementia. The space also includes a projector which will project coordinating images from the decade of music that is playing at the moment. For example, if a participant is playing a song from the 1950s, a sock hop image might appear on the wall, or if a participant is playing a 1980’s song it may be an image from Studio 54. Showing the image on that large of a scale recreates the space and brings the participant back to the era they loved most.
The maker space is design to accommodate the most severe cases of dementia participants. This space is filled with two tables, one craft table and one projection table. In a study in the United Kingdom, the simple repetitive action of popping a projected bubble was enough brain activity to calm and engage the most severe cases of dementia (BBC News).This space will be the quietest and most secluded space in the exhibition. The calm, quiet area is an outlet for family members to bring people living with dementia to have a moment of reprieve. As the disease progresses, sufferers often have more heightened emotional needs, and the Re: Think space will be used as space of reprieve from all the emotional stories brought up when participants interacted with the objects within the gallery space.
Re: recall, relive, remember is an exhibition designed to help individuals with dementia and Alzheimer’s regain a moment of clarity. But it has broader goals, too. Through design, we can better establish the needs of specific growing communities the exhibition field can help. Understanding the needs of one group often helps the needs of multiple groups. I hope, even if it is a bit selfish, that through design, we can connect people on a more personal level—especially having a granddaughter or grandson be able to talk with their grandparent again.
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