Individual and Collective Memory

Staff and volunteers at Thackray Medical Museum in Leeds are set to play leading roles in a new virtual reality artwork created for the museum. Artist Irene Brown is working with the museum to create a set of virtual reality viewers which visitors will be able to look through and see impressions of what the museum building looked like in the past, when it served as a workhouse and a hospital. Aesthetica catch up with the museum to discuss memory, history and today’s social climate.

A: Your new exhibition uses virtual reality to encourage audiences to view the museum as it was in the part – serving as a workhouse and a hospital – why do you think that it is important to preserve the past in this sense and how do you think that it viewers will relate to a historical view into the museum?
TMM: Using virtual reality in the museum gallery spaces enables the visitor to see the history of the space in-situ which is really important to understand how the space was used historically. It’s very easy to overlook the statistics that the building was designed for over 700 workhouse inmates, but hopefully this installation will encourage visitors to stop and think about what that really means. We are hoping visitors will relate to the history of the building on a personal level, using the installation as an opportunity to come face to face with the past and think about the people that lived here, as workhouse inmates, wounded soldiers from the war hospital and medical staff who kept the site running.

A: How do you think that history and modern technology are creating a dialogue with each other within this show?
: The mix of history with modern technology is paired beautifully thanks to the skill of the artist Irene Brown. Irene has hand crafted each viewer to feel like you are holding something historical, sympathetic to the content shown within. It’s impossible to detach the modern from the historical but they flow together well in each viewer, with a gallery suddenly turning into a Workhouse bathing area complete with exhausted washing women who look in stark contrast next to the bright gallery spaces. The dialogue becomes almost an echo or a memory of the past while in an historic space, it’s very evocative.

A: How did this project come about in terms of original ideas and research?
TMM: The museum was lucky to receive a grant from Arts Council England, administered and supported by the creative company Arts&Heritage.  Our aim was to utilise contemporary art in order to understand the history of the building as a workhouse and war hospital, as it’s something not previously explored within the museum. We gave Irene Brown our brief which can be summarised as “there is a need to live in this building to understand it”. Irene really took that and ran through the history of the building, researching the site and the inhabitants to incorporate their essence in her installations. It’s one of very few examples of virtual reality software being used in this way in the museum sector as far as we know, and we are thrilled that we are able to showcase the potential of it in this installation.

A: What, if anything, do you think the exhibition will teach its viewers about the past, and about topical issues within everyday life now?
TMM: I feel the work will encourage people to think more deeply about the historical buildings we still inhabit and often pay little attention to. When we work, or live, in a space we can be so caught up with what is happening now we don’t take the time to reflect on who may have walked in the same spaces and what their experience of the space was like. This installation is an opportunity to let your imagination consider the stories of the people who lived and died in this building long before it was a museum. The use of imagery relating to the workhouse in particular is extremely topical, with record numbers of families in the UK today needing to access food banks and support to survive.  Some visitors have made the connections with the workhouse and modern parallels in providing aid, and questioned how far we have come as a society.  We are pleased the installation is provoking discussion on these issues, and while not being the initial aim of the project it is refreshing to see contemporary art in the museum space being used in this way.

A: How does the virtual reality act in terms of bringing the past to life now – what will audiences be able to see?
TMM: Audiences will see shadows of the past layered onto the regular gallery surroundings through the viewers. Irene has painstakingly researched the surroundings in the workhouse and war hospital, including appropriate costuming, and turned museum staff and volunteers into these faces from history. The imagery has been placed onto the viewers which are then used to see a full 360 degree snapshot from history.  Each viewer has a different theme to it, and the different spaces they are placed in help you to view the building through its different incarnations.

A: How does the show address both individuals and collective memory, for example seeing people that worked in the building, but also a wider sense of community that existed?
The use of the staff and volunteers within the installation really helped us all to engage with the building as the latest inhabitants of it and gave us the sense we were participating in a much bigger memory of a space. It encourages the visitor to step into this historical community and appreciate the depth of memory which the site holds.

1. Courtesy of Thackray Medical Museum.