We stroked a stuffed fox. We held perfect spheres of sheep’s wool from Oman in cream, dark brown and rich rust red, touched wooden printing blocks carved in India, and examined fungus packed tightly to keep its spores under control. Our fingertips traced the pheasant painted on a West Country harvest jug. And we found our own meanings in reproductions of paintings – one of a Dartmoor forest, another of the Devon coast in such deep colours that a participant thought it might be Australian.
The cycle of the year – which loosely themes our Living Each Season programme – is meaningful to people across ages and backgrounds. We’ve worked with men in their fifties, women who grew up in India or the Caribbean. There are no right answers, no pressure to recognise anything or recall a particular memory.
The programme’s name comes from a quote by the 19th century US nature writer and philosopher, Henry Thoreau: “Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.” We chose this because it reflects the natural world as well as the spirit of taking the time to look slowly at what is in front of us.
The focus of RAMM’s sessions is on the experience of the moment. Perhaps it’s more akin to mindfulness than reminiscence.
We were inspired by the groundbreaking Meet Me at MOMA programme at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, and have adapted much of its methodology. So gallery tours and object-handling session generally start with observing each picture or object together, describing it as a group, before sharing personal responses and weaving factual information into the discussion. It illustrates how it can be enjoyable – even good for you – to learn or see something new at any point in your life.
A visionary occupational therapist from one of our partners in the health field, Franklyn Hospital – a Devon Partnership NHS Trust hospital with a dementia assessment ward, shares our enthusiasm for the MOMA programme and emphasising the moment. She brings patients to the museum in individual visits and to attend our group activities, and we run activities on the ward. We’re strengthening our relationship with local memory cafes and are taking sessions to them over the coming weeks too.
I am struck by the incredible leaps and poetic observations that even a damaged mind can make, how far from predictable paths the conversation can roam
We aim to create a tactile experience, and plan the order of sessions so that people won’t spend too long waiting for something to touch or see. We select objects from our handling collections that the whole group can reach at once – such as a large piece of barkcloth spread across the table.
We try to keep the mood of the season under discussion, for example, looking for objects related to trees. But sometimes we go out on a limb to incorporate something particularly interactive, such as musical instruments. This time we have Melanesian rattles with coconut shell, so that people can listen while someone makes sounds.
And we often close a session with something small and multiple which everyone can hold at once, a final shared moment. So in our Summer session we put a tiny starfish in each person’s hand, while for Autumn we all explore a key with eyes closed, and in Spring we cradle delicate, pale blue eggshells collected in the 1940s.
People comment on the magic of each new season, and how each phase must end for another to begin. The discussion this month ranges from growing up on a farm to birdsong, views on hunting and encroaching housing estates. There’s no need to shy away from difficult issues – most people still enjoy engaging with important subjects.
I am struck by the incredible leaps and poetic observations that even a damaged mind can make, how far from predictable paths the conversation can roam. We bring out a monarch butterfly, talk about its remarkable seasonal migration across thousands of miles, over several generations. Someone gives a beautiful description of geese flying overhead this morning, on their way south for the winter.
Once we brought out a Victorian carved church boss for a gentleman who’d been a carpenter; he didn’t recognise it as wood, but was entranced by a contemporary ceramic boat. Another gentleman – a former artist – found nothing of interest in the paintings we thought he’d like to see, but was entranced for quite a while by the texture of Ugandan barkcloth. It’s a fascinating and humbling reminder that personal identity is complex and multi-faceted, and changes over time and through illness.
This is the ethos of our programme. We try to help people find something from our eclectic collections that speaks to the person here today, who may well not be the same person he or she used to be.