The Memory Palace: A Brief Review


Anybody who has seen the BBC series 'Sherlock' will be familiar with the concept of a memory palace. A place that exists both in our heads and in the environment around us it is a reflection of who and where we live our lives. In 'The Memory Palace' Edward Hollis deconstructs the things that define these interior spaces which only exist for a short time before they either change or disappear altogether.

From the early days of the Roman Empire and the special chambers where royalty was born to the future of the cloud it is a thought provoking exploration of spaces which no longer exist but hold meaning to the people who inhabited them.

The book is framed by anecdotes about the space in which his grandmother lives. Affectionately dubbed "The Dollhouse" it is a space that captures the life experiences of someone who is restricted to only a small flat somewhere in London. Through these stories it demonstrates that no matter what one thinks our past experiences (both personal and cultural) frame the spaces we inhabit.

Of particular interest to me were the sections on Objects and Images. 

Objects weaves a narrative that goes back to 16th Century Germany and Cabinets of Curiosities (also known as Kunstkammers). The spiritual predecessors of modern museums they were random collections of artifacts collected for their magical abilities and other mysterious reasons. Much like book or art collections their curation was very intentional. Also much like any other collection as soon as the curator had passed away it was soon broken up, the valuable assets sold, and the rest simply disposed of in the most convenient fashion. Only a catalogue exists today to remind us of what the experience must have been.

The original Crystal Palace

The original Crystal Palace

Images focuses on the modern era. Weaving a story that begins with the televising of Queen Elizabeth's coronation it explores the impact that bringing the outside world into our intimate spaces has had. Little by little we've moved from living within four walls to a undefinable ether somewhere in 'The Cloud'. The questions raised are similar to those posed by Christina Wodtke in a wonderful presentation at Midwest UX last fall.

If you've got about ten hours to spare 'The Memory Palace' is an excellent read. More than just a lightweight bathroom reader it will get you thinking about your own environment and how it defines who you are. I look forward to adding his earlier work, 'The Secret Life of Buildings', to my personal To Read pile as soon as I can get a copy.