How do we remember and commemorate the history of a neighbourhood? How might the personal memories of locations, captured in personal photographs, intersect with the histories of public spaces? How might we use these questions to create, with a community of seniors, a set of workshops that not only promote digital literacy but also build a collaborative curatorial project? These are the questions that formed the core of the participatory media project and public exhibition entitled MemorySpace: Private Memories, Public Histories.
The 2012 MemorySpace project, which included a series of workshops and a public exhibition, was a collaboration between the Montreal’s Mobile Media Lab (MML) with the Atwater Library and Computer Centre (ALCC).
MemorySpace mobilized the creative energies of senior citizens through a collective, curatorial process. The project provided an opportunity for seniors to acquire or build on digital skills that they deemed important: scanning, preserving, emailing and organizing photographs. The project involved three stages. In the first stage, seniors participated in a series of workshops where they learned to scan and preserve photographic images. Over 32 older adults participated in this first set of workshops. In the second phase of the project, participants were invited back to engage in a collaborative, curatorial process. Together, we organized the image-collections into slide shows. In the third phase, we worked together to co-curate an exhibit based on the collections of personal photographs.
Our main target audience was the community involved with the ALCC. Seniors in particular took an active role as workshop participants and co-curators of the public exhibition, which was held from September 20, 2012 – October 7, 2012.
The Atwater Library itself has a fascinating history connected to its location. Housed in a heritage building near the corner of Ste-Catherine and Atwater Avenue, it sits at the intersection of several diverse neighbourhoods. These include: downtown Montreal, Little Burgundy, St Henri, and Westmount. Originally founded as the Montreal Mechanics’ Institute in 1828, the Atwater Library has provided vocational training and library services for over 180 years. As a non-profit, member-supported library, it continues to serve patrons of diverse ages and economic and cultural backgrounds, including seniors, new immigrants, and refugees. In recruiting participants for MemorySpace, we drew upon both the library’s e-newsletter and its waiting lists for future workshops for seniors.
Through the curatorial workshops (the third phase), seven participants worked together to create an exhibit that would display personal photographs and stories. Upon completion of the workshops, a two-week public exhibition was held. It included four integrated components: (1) large scale projections out of the windows of the library, which attracted the attention of the public; (2) a robust website that was collaboratively produced with the workshop participants. The website shared life stories that contextualized the photographs (3) a touchscreen that exhibited the entire collections of each participant; (4) a collection of objects and momentos that was curated by workshop participants. The exhibition opening attracted over 200 visitors.
The project successfully enhanced Digital Literacy for seniors. More specifically, it enhanced literacy in the context of creative collaboration and inter-generational connections between members of the team. The larger theoretical goal was to work with the concept of how photography and memory work together. Methodologically, the challenge was to create a community-based public art project that could draw on PAR’s goals to empower communities through action. It was also a way to think through research-creation in a community context.