Tales from the Memory Safe

Tales from the Memory Safe

This blog has been written by Edinam Edem-Jordjie, a STEP Intern with the UCL East Community Engagement Team.


‘Step into your new home, packed with objects that were rather recently, someone else’s entirely. What did they leave for you? What story will it tell? What will you leave for them? And will you leave it well?’ – The Memory Safe, June 2019

On the 23rd June, 13,000 people descended onto Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park (QEOP) for the third annual Great Get Together – a celebration of our different communities, inspired by the life and values of MP Jo Cox. As part of the preparations to open the new UCL East campus, UCL is committed to establishing an active role in the local community through a variety of activities including the delivery of a high quality public events programme and being involved in the flagship London Great Get Together, which takes place just a few minutes from where the new campus will be located, is part of that commitment.

Through our participation in the Great Get Together we aimed to raise awareness about UCL East, as well as creating an activity that allows us to talk about or showcase the academic research at UCL. This year, we teamed up with Dash Arts, an east London based cultural arts organisation and The Bartlett Centre for Advanced Spatial Analysis at UCL to deliver ‘The Memory Safe’.

We have been in discussions about our participation in The Great Together since January and we knew that wanted our event to reflect the broad theme of ‘migration, memory and place’ to tie in with the ‘Moving Objects: Stories of Displacement’ exhibition that’s currently showing in the Octagon gallery . You can find out more about ‘Moving Objects’ on the UCL Culture website.

After sending a call for expressions of interest to researchers and artists, Dash Arts and two researchers: Leah Lovett and Valerio Signorelli signed on board to help us develop our activity.

Dash Arts and the researchers were brought together (in a very short amount of time) to have a number of informal conversations, sharing their research and artistic practices, as well as their interests and experiences in other projects. The team at Dash were particularly inspired by Valerio and Leah’s work on other projects ( including Playing the Archive, and The Listening Wood) where they sought to use technology to allow visitors to interact with objects and archives (and trees!) in a new and exciting way.

The team were pressured for time, but soon came up with an activity which was inspired by the work on both these projects. The idea was to capture the stories of certain objects and allow people to listen to and respond to these in an immersive environment.

Ahead of the event a number of small workshops were held with local community groups and residents to record stories of local people.

Hosted in a Marquee that was decorated to resemble a ‘home’ with windows, curtains, lamps and sofa chairs serving as decorations, The Memory safe served as a safe and comfortable space to explore themes of memory, migration and place.

The Memory Safe

View of The Memory Safe from Main Entrance

View of The Memory Safe from entrance

As visitors entered The Memory Safe, they were greeted by a Dash Arts Facilitator who welcomed them to their new home. The facilitator explained that there are things to look at and listen to, which have been left behind for them, and that they are invited to leave something behind before they leave. It could be a written story, a drawing, a clay sculpture, or a recording.

Large table full of various household objects

Table full of various objects

In the centre of The Memory Safe, there was a large table full of objects. Each object had a red luggage tag with a NFC sticker attached to it. Around the perimeter of The Memory Safe, there were several small enclaves with chairs, headphones and tables with red circles in the centre. When placing the red luggage tag with the NFC sticker to the red circle on the table, visitors could hear the spoken story that corresponds to the object, through the headphones. These stories had been gathered through a series of workshops in June with members from local communities.  On the walls there were shelves of objects and postcards containing sculptures and stories that have been completed at the workshops and during the afternoon of The Great Get Together. Around the large table of objects ¸ there were a series of smaller tables. Here visitors could make objects out of clay, leave their own tokens behind and tell their own stories / memories of objects on postcards or through audio recordings. Dash Arts Facilitators and the UCL Team were on hand to support this process with the young people and their families.

A woman and a child listen to the memory attached to a steering wheel.

Two visitors listening to a memory attached to the steering wheel

Throughout the day, visitors could hear stories by a professional storyteller inspired by the theme and performances by a small ensemble of musicians, some of whom performed using the objects on display.

Professional Storyteller Norman Bailey and musician Zoot Lynam perform

Storyteller Norman Bailey and musician Zoot Lynam perform

The Research

As mentioned about The Memory Safe was inspired by Valerio and Leah’s work on a number of other projects as a part of their research with UCL CASA, which you can read more about below:

Playing the Archive

‘Playing the Archive’ is a research and cultural production programme that addresses some of the challenges we face when it comes to supporting play in the modern world. It does so through the exploration of play by bringing together archives, spaces and technologies of play, along with people who play, both old and young. The project aims to complete three tasks; digitising the Opie manuscript, a record of games recorded by children in the 1950’s and 60’s; creating a virtual reality play environment based on the archive; and build experimental smart playgrounds that respond to the cultural needs of children in inner-city, multi-ethnic communities. It is hoped that the completion of this project will show how play can be used to unite groups across language, communities and social divides.

The Listening Wood

‘The Listening Wood’ is a digital poetry walk around Hampstead Heath which intends to encourage the public to slow down and discover fourteen of London’s veteran urban trees using the Internet of Things.  The Listening Wood takes stories gathered through ethnographic and archival research around the selected trees as the basis for a mode of digital poetics. As you walk and encounter the trees, you receive texts that detail lines from famous pieces of poetry associated with the Heath. The Heath is one of the key sites that has shaped the popular image of the British landscape through the work of Romantic poets such as John Keats. The Listening Wood revisits this cultural and poetic past and draws it into the digital age, using mobile communication and IoT technologies to encourage people to slow down, look up and appreciate our urban veteran trees.

The elements of these research projects that explore the memories and stories that are embedded in the objects around us and the value that they have/or should have in our society today is what inspired the activity at the Great Get Together. They show how these stories and memories, although different through location, age, or time can relate to people and be used to unite people or inspire a new appreciation/connection. The Memory Safe explored this through its central activity: the attachment of spoken memories and stories to everyday objects such as stuffed toys, teapots, shells etc.

The Memory Safe and the two pieces of research aim to make us show a new appreciation or connection to things as everyday as trees, games and household objects, through revisiting the cultural past of these things, showcasing them in new and exciting ways and using them to inspire and forge new connections across time and place. Among the feedback gotten from visitors on the day, one comment made in a conversation stood out to me. This visitor remarked that it was interesting how the most basic objects, (basic in that they’re very common and ordinary) often had the most fascinating memories and stories attached to them. I think she was right. For me, listening to the stories made me realise how what may seem mundane to someone may mean the world to another and it was nice to hear different perspectives.

Display of postcards with memories on them, written by visitors

Memories left behind by visitors

It made me appreciate the things that I have in my life and made me think of all the simple objects I have that have really formative memories and stories attached to them. These objects can tell us a lot about people, society, eras and cultures and this knowledge can be used to build solidarity and empathy between us, which is why they’re valuable and should be kept safe. The Great Get Together is an event that brings people together and it’s nice to see that The Memory Safe and what it represents was at an event like it.

That’s all from me for now! Thank you for reading.