The Things That Make Us Remember

Teemu Korpilahti (Aalto university Visual Communication Design)

When we first visited the archives of Aalto University, the thing that intrigued me the most was the essence of the old artefacts even more than their content. It is something that is difficult to describe and define. It is the object’s journey through time, the way it has been affected by time, and the touchpoints it has had with various people over the years. What also struck me was the overpowering task of the people working there. They are daily facing a devastating amount of content that they are trying to document and archive. It seems like a losing battle, where the accumulation of media and objects is impossible to manage. To me, the archivists almost seem like professional hoarders, collecting more things than they can possibly handle. They are forced to throw away things and to decline taking everything that is offered to them. Yet, at the same time, they are afraid of losing important items in the process. These observations also led me to consider a more personal point of view to archives and the preservation of artefacts. What is the individual’s archive, and in what ways are physical objects important for the preservation of memories?


Our Personal Archives

My grandmother passed away last autumn. She was well over 95 and had suffered from slowly progressing Alzheimer’s disease for many years. Towards the end of her life she was unable to tell one family member from another. She was the last living grandparent I had. My own parents have mostly taken care of handling the estates of our late relatives. But in every case I had been there to look through some of their belongings, and to select some small artefact that I have a personal connection to. In the end, what is left when a person dies? Non-material phenomena and physical artefacts. The effect you’ve had in other people’s lives, or in the society in general, and the physical things you’ve possessed, made or given to others. The non-material phenomena and memories eventually fade away and become diluted. Some physical artefacts might survive longer, but eventually they also disappear.

The business of going through a dead person’s belongings is a strangely nostalgic and melancholic thing. The estate is like the archive and testament of a person’s life. Or at least a collection of items that they carried with them to the end of their life. Some are old, others are new. A timeline can be constructed from the oldest to the newest. The construct in time is like an upside down pyramid. There are always fewer old items than new in this archive. The old ones connect us to the person’s youth, and the new ones to their later years. This is almost like a metaphor of our personal memory. We only remember the most emotional and important things from our youth, and a much greater volume of the events and details of our present life. In the same way, we probably feel most emotional about the oldest items we possess. Well, Alzheimer’s can throw a funny twist to this as well. As factual memory fades and degrades, the brain starts to fill the gaps with the most fantastic stories.

Tools for the Memory

The human memory has a strong connection to artefacts. The concept of distributed cognition suggests that all information and cognitive processing is not confined inside the human brain, but rather distributed in objects and individuals in the surrounding world – something written down on paper or illustrated in an image. Sorting through the archive of items in the estate is a journey through memories. Suddenly every little object seems to be laden with stories. Most of the things have to be sold, recycled or thrown away. Throwing away these items can be difficult. It is an exercise of letting go of the deceased person and their belongings, but also potentially about letting go of certain memories.

Memory is limited by capacity and affected by time, both in the real world as well as in computers and storage media. As individuals, we have a limited capacity for remembering things. Much in the same way, we have a limited capacity for storing physical items in our garage or basement. At some point you are forced to throw something away or forget it. The difference is that real world objects can be managed intentionally, whereas the loss of memories are more subconscious and accidental. The capacity of storage media is limited, it is also not unlike the human memory in its vulnerability to corruption and degradation. One might argue that contemporary storage media has the potential for being stored infinitely. But even the digital storage realm is vulnerable to many kinds of time related factors. One such aspect are the various types of file formats available. Compatibility for file formats is a major concern in the preservation of information and media. Say you find a recordable DVD disc from your bookshelf. Even in the odd case that you have a physical drive that can read it, it is still quite common that the file format isn’t supported by modern programs, or the codec that was used to compress the media might be impossible or at least very difficult to find. Moreover, in the case of long term preservation, context or the lack of it, is a concern. Without a thorough understanding of the world at the time of the creation of an artefact, understanding its significance is questionable.

Measures of Time

The things we possess can have multiple stages in their lifecycle, which are strongly interconnected to the phases of our lives and the passing of generations. I recently went through some old photo albums, and I was halted by the feelings that one item in particular brought about. It was a photograph of myself playing with a lego train set with my father. He was roughly my age during the taking of this image. This thing, the lego railway, is like a measure, unit or dimension of time. A few years back, I found the train set again when we were visiting my mother. Apart from the power source and a few missing pieces, it was intact. Luckily, I managed to find a spare power source online, and now my own children have been able to share the experience and the timeline of this thing with me. Each time it is taken from storage for the next generation to play with, marks a unit of time – a generation.

The train set will most likely not survive many generations intact. But there is one such measure of time in our family, which has passed through six generations already, and which will most likely span many more. This measure of time is aptly an old pocket watch. The family tradition is that it is passed from grandfather to grandson on his confirmation day. This has so far been a patriarchal tradition, which I might end up breaking one day. The watch was specifically passed down over one generation to the son of the grandfather’s own son. The tradition started with my great-great-grandfather, and hopefully I will be able to give it to my own grandchild, boy or girl, in the future. The watch is perfectly functional, and can be used to measure the time of the day and the day of the month. But the purpose of its existence has been elevated to measure decades, centuries and generations instead. It is also an item of embedded, hidden and lost memories. My grandfather was always my favourite person in our family. This thing is a link to our shared memories. It is also a link to his memories of his own grandfather. These generational artefacts force us to measure ourselves against our parents and ancestors. As a parent, I have become very conscious whether I’m repeating the patterns of my own mother and father in parenting and personal life choices. The artefacts can play a big role in evoking these feelings and forcing us to process them.

The Importance of Objects

A particular item of interest to me, in my late grandmother’s estate, is a collection of eight millimeter film reels, cameras, and projectors. It used to belong to my other grandfather on my mother’s side. He was an enthusiastic film hobbyist mostly recording family vacations and celebrations. Most of the films are from before my birth, and unlike my mother and aunt, I don’t have a personal connection with them. For me, they are rather objective documents of a time I can’t remember. They are memories without emotion. The only emotion they might arouse in me would have to be mediated through the camera operator’s treatment of the subject. When I was younger, it wasn’t the family documentaries that made an impression on me. The projector apparently came with a couple of readymade film reels. I remember one of them was a classic black and white animation of Felix the Cat. It was a most psychedelic story of a black cat coming home after a night of drinking and partying. There were also some less questionable Donald Duck and Goofy cartoons on the reels. But these films, the media, and the hallowed nature that was part of setting up the show, made a permanent impression on me. For a long time animation was one of the main professional directions that I pursued. Rather than the content of the media and the family films, it is this link to my personal development, which is the memory and value that define the objects.

The film media itself is degrading, just as our memories of those people and times are. Now would probably be the last moment to attempt to digitize the films. Still, watching those films in digital format will never be the same. Sure, the grain and quality of the digitized film will still testify the age of the media and the quality of the original material at the time of its recording. Yet on some level, it seems as if the physical objects carry more meaning and memories than the content of the media itself. So perhaps it is of more value to give that old projector a showcase place somewhere in our home, where it can evoke conversation and allow me to share these memories with family and friends through oral tradition.

Respect for the Deceased

There is a bit of guilt placed on the heirs from beyond the grave in the reading of a will. Whether we like it or not, we are given personal belongings of our relatives, some of which were very dear to them, but for which we might not have any practical use for. The way in which we honor the items that are left behind by our relatives is indicative of our respect for the deceased. Perhaps the most special artefacts a person leaves behind are those that have been made by him or her. In the case of my mother’s father, such an heirloom is a writing desk he made as a young man. It is a huge heavy desk with its legs carved to resemble the claws of a lion or a griffin. His wish was that I should have it. Unfortunately, at the moment I have no place to put it. Neither is it the easiest of items to include in your apartment’s decor and overall style. In some ways, my grandfather was like that table. Heavy set, robust and sometimes a bit crude. But in the end I still miss him, and I would hate to see that table get lost from our family. With a handcrafted object, the legacy of the creator in a sense can surpass his memory. The touch of the creator’s hand, his vision and intent can be sensed in the object. The touching of the object is an experienced shared over time.

In some aspects, Finland is a relatively young society with regards to passing traditions and heritage from generation to generation. Many such chains were namely broken during the Second World War, as families were forced to relocate rapidly, with no chance to carry many possessions with them. The longest timeline of family heritage for me is that single pocket watch. Not many physical places pass shared memories from generation to generation in the contemporary world. People move from apartment to apartment many times during their lives and change their living arrangements to better accommodate the life circumstances. In a sense, objects can be more permanent than places. The tradition of summer cottages is an exception to this phenomenon. For many people of my generation, the summer cottage has become the only permanent place in our lives. Also, the one thing that my grandparents seemed to worry about during their last years was, what will happen to the summer place once they are gone. Clearly, it was a place of great importance for them. It was, and is, the one fixed point that unites us, the one thing that is connected to more shared memories than any other thing. It feels like the safest place in the world, and already it’s the only permanent place for my daughter. One of the most important promises I have made, is the one I made to my grandmother, when I promised that during my life, we would not lose this place.

Micro Archives

We are the archivists of the items of our own lives and those artefacts which are passed down and conserved from our relatives. Compared to the university archives, the real difference is in the scope. The family of the public archives is the surrounding world and society. For the archive, capturing a substantial part of the memories of individual families and people is impossible. The archives work to serve the macro world. We as individuals can pursue to preserve our personal micro heritage. Many times, being able to track down history on our personal micro level can also help us to understand the bigger picture. Knowing what your own grandparents experienced during the Second World War, gives you a completely different perspective to bigger historical events. In this way, you can also learn to better understand your own relatives and their strange habits. You might understand how they have been affected by the events that took place during their lives. Or even how powerful experiences or difficult times have an effect not only on our grandparents, but also on our parents and ourselves.

What then is the essence of the archived artefact? It is the combination of circumstances that led to its creation. It is the people it has touched on its journey through the years, and the meanings and memories that we associate with it. It is a tool and touchpoint of our personal and shared memory. It can give us a false sense of immortality – it can be a thing that is our legacy. However, in fact, it is a frail thing that is destined to eventually degrade and get lost with time.