19 October 2014


Without writing things down, how do we remember?

The saying goes: I hear it and forget; I see it and remember; I do it and understand.

I heard birdsong and don't know what bird it is. I see artworks and sometimes remember the name of the artist. I follow a knitting pattern and get lost ... but once I understand the structure, I can look back and see where it's gone wrong. Different sorts of memory are at work, and  there are surely ways to enhance each of them.

One such is the phrase or sentence that helps us to remember lists - Roy G. Biv for the colours of the rainbow, for instance. Another method is to have a mental set of places and put objects in each one. Remember names by associating them with something meaningful to you. 

But what about the wider picture? In oral cultures, memory boards help to maintain and transmit historical knowledge. Someone who knows how to read them passes on the knowledge through a performance. 

Lukasa (memory board) in the form of a woman with a tortoise body. Luba culture, Congo (via)
"Lukasa, or memory boards, are hand-held wooden objects that present a conceptual map of fundamental aspects of Luba culture. They are at once illustrations of the Luba political system, historical chronicles of the Luba state, and territorial diagrams of local chiefdoms. Each board's design is unique and represents the divine revelations of a spirit medium expressed in sculptural form ... many lukasa utilize a system of denotation based on masses of shells and beads affixed to their wooden surfaces." (via)

" These wooden memory boards are used by Luba kings, diviners, geneologists and court historians in the Congo. The Lukasa is a memory aid, a means for evoking events, places and names which assist in initiation ceremonies. According to  A History of Art in Africa, "It stimulates thought and instructs in sacred lore, culture heroes, migrations, and sacred rule ...A configuration of beads, shells and pins coded by size and colour on one side refers to kings' lists. Beads may stand for individuals, a large bead encircled by smaller ones perhaps representing a chief and his entourage. Bead arrangements also refer to proverbs and praise phrases" as well as migratory paths and roads." (via)

" a great deal of ritual performance and ceremonial song is linked to repeating pragmatic and rational knowledge. This includes astronomical observations used to retain a calendar closely related to resource availability – be it from hunting, gathering or farming. Star patterns are often used as representations of mythological characters whose stories also encode rational knowledge." (via)

"Sets of locations in the landscape have been used as memory aids – the most effective memory aid known. ... the songlines of the Australian cultures, the sacred trails of the Native Americans and sacred paths found in cultures around the world served the needs of memory in exactly the same way." This is the method of loci, attributed to the Greek and Roman orators.

Medieval manuscripts too were designed as miniature memory spaces.
"In the Middle Ages, the memory arts changed purpose from the oratory of classical times to become the domain of the monks wishing to memorise great slabs of religious tracts. Monks were expected to memorise, at a minimum, all 150 psalms, a task which took somewhere between six months and three years.

"The heavily illustrated handwritten manuscripts were seen as a prompt for medieval memory when books were extremely rare and horrendously expensive. The words were enmeshed in images which match the classical recommendations for making information far more memorable: grotesque and violent acts along with fanciful beasts, strange figures, gross ugliness and extraordinary beauty. It was common to have each chapter start with a coloured initial, alternating between red and blue, with repeated letters each having their own design, such as in the Smithfield Decretal shown above."

To end, a contentious statement from the memoryspaces.com.au blog: "Art in oral cultures is primarily a memory aid to the knowledge system while art in literate cultures is primarily aesthetic."

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