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This is why we love our “stuff” – The Memory Palace, by Edward Hollis

The Memory Palace – A Book of Lost Interiors, by Edward Hollis (Hardcover: 368 pages; publisher: Portobello Books; Sept. 5 2013)

When I studied Interior Decorating years ago, I didn’t have the foggiest idea about the real significance of interiors. You can look at rooms as sets of measurements, colour schemes, furniture and personal “stuff”, but you can also look at them from an entirely different angle, which I discovered when I read The Memory Palace, by Edward HollisI learned truly intriguing things about the spaces we live in, which made other puzzle pieces fall into place. The journey of discovery started with the title of the book. What is a “memory palace”? Read on.

Critics praised Hollis’s writing in The Memory Palace as elegant and polished, and it is. This made it easier for me to get through the book, which requires the reader to linger over it and digest all the new ideas. In it, Hollis explains the concept of a memory palace, by juxtaposing the “Doll’s House”, the home of his grandmother, with caves, rooms, palaces and even mausoleums through the ages, from prehistoric times to the present day. With each example, he demonstrates the features and functions of a memory palace.

Illustration of the sitting room of Hollis’s grandmother, the “Doll’s House”. The illustration is by Osbert Lancaster (d. 1986), who also made illustrations of architecture and interiors.

The Big Idea

Hollis’s thesis is this: Interiors – particularly domestic interiors, and the way they are arranged, and what they contain, mirror the memories people have in their heads. When you look at the room you’re in, you remember where you got something, and what you felt when you got it, and you know what you do with it. The room is the physical manifestation of a collection of memories. That is why people are so attached so their homes, and why, when they go to old-age homes, they quickly lose their marbles and die.

People’s homes are the places they live, but they are also their jobs – increasingly as they get older. Their job, after retirement especially, is to wash the dishes, vacuum the carpets, weed the garden, change the bed linen, pack away the toys, clean up after the pets. Even if it takes them a week to do one thing, doing the one thing is their job and what keeps them going. “‘Living here is my job,’ she [grandmother] retorts, ‘and doing it keeps me going.’” (p.11)

“An interior is a meeting place in which diverse elements resonate together to create a particular Stimmung [atmosphere]; but that mood need not be the domestic bliss that is usually expected. There’s nothing necessarily reassuring about the order of things.”  (p.7)

So, a bedroom, sitting room, study or whatever – the room you spend the most time in – is arranged just as your memories are arranged.

It is a repository of your own creation – this goes there, this goes here, that I need tomorrow, this I must do something about, etc.

And a room can become someone’s legacy – and when they die, it is all worthless because what’s in there is not the “memory palace” of whoever is left to take care of it.

Ever had to clear out the bedroom of a loved one who had died? You look at all the stuff and the worn clothes and the bits and pieces and think, what rubbish. To you, yes, it is. To someone else, it contained themselves and their memories. As Hollis points out, “Without my grandmother to recollect their stories, they [her collectables] would be useless trinkets, and the cabinet would be just an empty cupboard. One day, this is what will happen.” (p.120)

“It would be pointless [to argue with his granny about the world outside her house] for, as she and her friends become immobile or, worse, die, my grandmother finds herself more and more alone at home, less and less able to communicate with an outside world, that, as a consequence, appears to her more and more irrelevant and confusing. What was once a boundless domain now looks more and more like the direst stories on the telly – because that, increasingly, is all she’s getting to see of it. A cluttered sitting room in a doll’s house has become my grandmother’s whole world. No wonder she arranges it with such care.” (p.5)

What makes an interior?

An interior by definition is temporary, and about the past. It is not about the future. The minute you move into a place, and put your furniture in it, hang your pictures, put a mattress on your bed and your toothbrush in the bathroom, it is about what you have always done before. How many people design an interior thinking about how they will be ten years from now? Or when they retire? No, it is not something of the future, but of the present, rapidly aging with every moment you are in it.

Origin of the term “memory palace”

Where does the term “memory palace” come from?

“In ancient times, orators who had to learn long passages of speech by heart, believed that they could remember them better by assigning reminders of small parts of them to imaginary places. When the time came to speak, they would take an imaginary stroll from place to place, encountering reminders along the way, in the correct order. They called their constellations of reminders and places ‘memory palaces’, and they recommended that orators base them on real palaces and places.” (p.16)

This was a visualization technique that I used to teach as part of a course on study methods and memory skills. Nowadays we know that this memorization process is similar to the way that information is processed and located in the human brain. This explains why we call the interiors that we fill with things and create associations with, and thereby, remember, memory palaces. On the other hand, a room filled with memories is, to its owner, a palace – a memory palace. In fact,

“…the order of things in the interior has developed in tandem with the art of memory, from its origins in rote learning, and ritual repetition, to the artificial memory of the digital age…” (p.17)

A different perspective on memory and places

Reductionism in Art and Brain Science, by Eric Kandel (Hardcover: 240 pages; publisher: Columbia University Press; Aug. 30 2016)

This got me thinking of another reference work I’d read lately, by Nobel Prize-winning Neuroscientist, Dr. Eric R. Kandel, called Reductionism in Art and Brain Science. He discovered in his research, that when long-term memories are created in the brain, new connections are made between neurons to store the memory. But those physical connections must be maintained for a memory to persist, or else they will disintegrate and the memory will disappear within days. Each memory is connected to every other memory.

Think of an interior, then, as an arrangement of objects on a canvas – a painting that you look at and memorize every day. In his 2016 book, Reductionism in Art and Brain Science, Dr. Kandel  explains that an individual work of art;

“…is highly ambiguous, as great poetry is, and each focuses our attention on the work itself, without reference to people or objects in the external environment. As a result, we project our own impressions, memories, aspirations, and feelings onto the canvas. It is like a perfect psychoanalytical transference…”

So, when we look at the room in which we find ourselves, we closely identify with everything that is in it, and how we see it, is how we memorize it.

Imagine now, the home of a person suffering from compulsive hoarding, also known as hoarding disorder – as you have probably seen on TV. The hoarding is a result of psychological trauma, and everything in the home, even the rubbish, is something to which the person is deeply bound, their very sanity is tied to the stuff in the house. When you start throwing the stuff in their memory palace away, even if they let you, it is devastating to them. More than likely, after the clean-up, they will immediately regress and recreate their former interior.

Damnatio memoriae

A room and the things in them only have meaning and importance until the occupant dies. Nero Claudius Caesar (37-68 A.D.), the last Roman emperor of the Julio-Claudian dynasty, had an enormous palace filled with treasures, called the “Golden House” – in which he practiced his vices. When he died;

“…Nero’s successors decided that the best thing to do with the Golden House was to bury it. It was an ancient punishment: damnatio memoriae, reserved for the most egregious of criminals.” (p.43).

3,096 Days, by Natascha Kampusch

It is still so today – people like to bulldoze, bury or tear down the places where bad things had happened, like the houses of murderers. Therefore, if such a place is kept standing – like Auschwitz concentration camp, for instance – it is an extremely powerful reminder that the evil that happened there has not yet been eradicated. So long as it is not buried, we will see it and remember and not repeat those events. Yes, it is natural to think that tearing down the monuments to evil and palaces of despots will somehow make things right – but it won’t – it is a punishment that makes us forget the horror, rather than remember it.

Kidnapping victim, Natascha Kampusch, understood this. Instead of allowing the house in which she was imprisoned by kidnapper, Wolfgang Přiklopil, for 3,096 days, get vandalized or torn down, she bought it and lives in it. She confronts the evil of that interior every day of her life. What a brave woman. Unfortunately, that horrible place is also her memory palace,  “…a macabre museum to her lost adolescence”.

Interiors through the ages

Hollis takes us through the ages, from cave men to modern homes, even to fictional homes like “Tara” in Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind, demonstrating how memory palaces work. I have to admit, I was amazed that he could connect the people and their different interiors through the ages. It is an excellent demonstration of the principle of the six (and more) degrees of separation that connect everything. 

“The cave is the original interior. It is where we begin, or cease, to be human. It is the beginning before which there can be no beginning, a place where memory is stopped up in the dark, a place to enter in reverential dread, and from which to be reborn muddied, bloodied, howling and purple.” (p.65)

“The Catalogue of an Unknown Collection” – The Liechtenstein inventory of the “Kunstkammer” of Rudolf II, 1607. The manuscript measures 19.5 x 34 cm and has 415 paper pages. On the inside cover is written: “Ex libris Liechtensteinianis”, meaning “From the Liechtenstein Library”. The title of the manuscript is: “Von Anno 1607. Verzaichnus, was in der Röm Kunstkammer gefunden worden.” (Translated this means: From 1607, Inventory of what has been found in his majesty the Roman Emperor’s room, the Room of Art).

Hollis goes into the nature of cataloging and making inventories of the contents of rooms, and the strange and mysterious lists of artworks that have passed from kings to conquering armies to collectors. People put collections in rooms, and into cabinets, and the cabinets into more cabinets, like an endless puzzle, and all of those they also put into inventories.

Sometimes the inventory of objects in the room is as puzzling as the objects themselves that have mostly disappeared and were never correctly catalogued in the first place. As Hollis explains, “…we only document the things we possess, or the interiors we inhabit, when we are about to lose them.”

And only when we write them down, do they become a collection, and have some value. Ever watched The Antiques Roadshow? The objects that form a collection, and that have “provenance” – a catalogue with dates, sources and prices – are valued the most. I recently had the job of cataloging and curating my family’s collection of paintings. In the process I found out which ones are really valuable, which ones are ruined beyond repair, and which ones I thought were important, but are not. It sure was an eye-opener. Before, they were just pictures in the house. Now they are a valuable collection.

From grand interiors to very intimate ones

A fascinating chapter is about the interior colour called “French Grey”, which is linked to another about the small, hidden room in the Palace of Versailles (French – Château de Versailles), which was a study, confessional, escape room and a lavatory for Louis XIV, all in one.

Les Plaisirs de l’Ile Enchantée, the temporary theatre built for the production of Molière’s La Princess d’Élide (8 May 1664), for the Sun King, Louis XIV of France.

The poor Sun King, “bald, old, short”, had to get up and get dressed in front of a mass of people every day, a ritual called “Chambre du Roi”, but he refused to do his ablutions as a public spectacle. He had a “Cabinet de la Chaise” built for him, well hidden from prying eyes. It housed the first purpose-built lavatory in the whole Palace of Versailles. It was a pretty little room, but imagine what the king was thinking about as he stared out the window from his “throne”. According to Hollis, when the king was all by himself in this little room, he thought up the most fiendish plots to rid himself of his enemies. Well, what did you think the great and glorious king of France did by way of a toilet? A royal chamber pot under the royal bed?

The modern memory palace

As Hollis develops his argument and discusses modern memory palaces, he points out that store-bought stuff seldom has more than irritation value. Most people would rather say that they got this and that from one of their ancestors  (or an antique dealer) than from the local IKEA.

“The hoover, the fan heater, the light bulbs, and all the rest of them might be technological marvels, but they are, as far as she [grandmother] is concerned, things that just keep going wrong.” (p.207).

It reminded me of my mother and her dislike of anything computerized – ipads, phones, even the TV. She only likes the stuff she inherited from her mother, the stuff that’s not consumable, and is without built-in obsolescence. And of my father, who, despite being a computer boffin, refused to buy anything that wasn’t mechanical and analog, so he could fix it if it broke.

Which brings us to the present day, to the here and the now, and the fact that much of our physical environment is already virtual, all in the cloud, all intangible, represented by digital imagery. All memory palaces are created to disappear eventually. But, conversely, people will always want to keep records of their “stuff” online somewhere. Memories on Facebook, anyone? How about Virtual Reality sites on Google Streetview? And photos on Instagram? And shelfies?

“As the interior dissolves into air, so its very interiority seems to vanish with it: the cave was a place set apart; while the ubiquity of the Web makes everywhere everywhere, and therefore nowhere. And that is the story of palaces, too, and the authority they embody. This could allow us to go anywhere and be anyone: we can all be, at one and the same time…And the future will be the same, for the same process will happen again, as the present passes into memory.” (p. 304)

The point is, people are people, memories are memories, and our needs to express ourselves, to tie ourselves to events, treasures and loved ones do not go away with the existence of the Web. We just do it differently. Today, your memory palace may be the community you have created around you on Facebook. Tomorrow it may be gone – deleted by you for whatever reason, perhaps boredom. Or you die, and your loved ones will be sitting with your Facebook memory palace, wondering, WTF is THAT? And What Were You Thinking?!

Read this to discover your own memory palace

There’s much more in the book, of course. It is really interesting – I could not finish a single chapter without marking a paragraph where another penny dropped.  But I’m just one person, and this accords with my perception of my world at this time. It gave me tremendous peace of mind to finally understand certain events and decisions by my family members. I can do things right from now on.

But you, dear reader – you are another story altogether. You have your own memory palaces, your own doll houses. You might get completely different insights from reading it. All I can do is encourage you to take the journey, and wade through it, chapter by chapter. The best books are the ones in which we discover something new, and which resonate with us long after we’ve put them down. The Memory Palace is one of those.

PS – The book contains a good set of references and a thorough bibliography. If I can fault anything, it is the drab presentation of the hardcover edition, and the poor quality of the black and white graphics inside. A few glossy pages of hi-res illustrations would not have gone amiss, even if the main focus is on the text. Frankly, if I hadn’t been interested in interiors from way back when, I would not have bought this at the SFU Bookstore – it is such a dull-looking little thing.

About the author

Edward Hollis

Edward Hollis is an architect, a teacher, and a writer. He currently lives in Edinburgh, where he is Reader in Interior Design and Deputy Director of Research at Edinburgh College of Art in the University of Edinburgh.

In Autumn 2009 his book, The Secret Lives of Buildings, was published by Portobello Books in London, and Metropolitan in New York. This was followed in 2013 by The Memory Palace: A Book of Lost Interiors.

The Secret Lives of Buildings, by Edward Hollis

This is a lovely anecdote from his website:

“Having studied Architecture at Cambridge and Edinburgh Universities, he [Hollis] spent a year working for Geoffrey Bawa, the architect renowned for his landscape garden of ruins and follies in the coastal lagoons of Sri Lanka.

He remembers sitting with a pink gin, a little white dog called Fang, and the great man himself, on the ruined terrace of the garden. ‘Was it meant to look so decayed?’ he asked. ‘Yes,’ came the slightly irritated reply. ‘Is it difficult to keep it that way?’ he continued, naively undeterred. ‘Very.’ was the only word he received.

Well, there’s truth in that. On Twitter he is @edwardhollis2, and describes himself as a “Self confessed Writer, recovering architect, addicted academic, all in Edinburgh”. Funny, for a guy who writes such serious stuff.

About the header image:

Photo of the interior of the kitchen hearth of the Bletterman House, part of the Village Museum in Stellenbosch, South Africa. It dates from the period 1750 – 1790. Photo by M.F. O’Brien, 2010. The house is one of four restored historical residences, one of which is that of my ancestors, the Schreuder family.

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