A living history museum usually conjures up images of butter churns and anvils. At Den Gamle By (The Old Town) Museum in Aarhus, Denmark, you’ll find all that. But tucked away in one corner of this museum, there’s also something different — an entire apartment straight out of the 1950s.
The “House of Memories” is not usually open to the public, and it’s not aimed at schoolchildren sent to learn about a distant and exotic past.
Rather, this exhibit is intended for visitors living with Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. And the history they’ve come to experience is their own.
On one recent visit, a small group of residents from the nearby Kløvervang nursing home was greeted at the door by a smiling young woman in sturdy shoes and a house dress.
After welcoming them and apologizing for having forgotten to take off her apron — “How embarrassing!” — the hostess explains that this is the home of her sister (wink, wink), but they are welcome to look around.
As she leads the group into a tiny kitchen and begins pulling out an array of spices, preserves and old liquor bottles, the guests seem happy to play along.
A coffee substitute from the era elicits an especially enthusiastic response as the visitors are invited to take a whiff.
“Ah! That smells like the old days!” exclaims one visitor.
Another visitor points to a giant pot perched on the radiator, and with a little prompting from the hostess, begins explaining the process for soaking and boiling baby diapers.
Someone else sees a toothbrush on the counter and a discussion ensues about when, exactly, brushing one’s teeth moved out of the kitchen and into the bathroom.
Throughout it all, the hostess, museum interpreter Nanna Vinther, takes on the role of willing student, gently prodding guests for more information: “What can you tell me about this thing? Does this actually taste good? You probably know more about this than I do.”
And there is plenty to talk about. From the food in the pantry to the clock in the dining room, the perfume on the dresser, even the electrical outlets: everything here is authentic 1950s.
Nothing is off limits, and not even the most intimate corner has been overlooked by curator Tove Engelhardt Mathiassen, who laughs as she explains, “I also put objects connected to love in the drawers of the man’s side of the bed.”
Mathiassen took great care in choosing the fictional couple who would live in this apartment — a schoolteacher and his wife — ensuring a middle-class setting recognizable to any visitor, regardless of his or her situation in the 1950s.
She consulted housekeeping manuals to make sure the scent of the cleaning products would be right, and home decor magazines to ensure paintings were hung at the proper level and the houseplants were fitting for the era.
“It’s a totality of sights and touch and smell which, in our experience, brings out their own memories,” Mathiassen says.
There’s science at play here, says Dorthe Bentsen, who heads the Center on Autobiographical Memory Research at Aarhus University.
“There are two things we know about autobiographical memory if you have Alzheimer’s disease,” says Bentsen, who has a doctorate in psychology. “One is that the early memories are best preserved.”
Specifically, those are memories from a person’s teens and 20s, a period known as the “reminiscence bump.”
Berntsen says researchers don’t know exactly why this is the case. It may be due to the repetition of those memories over the course of a lifetime or something connected to the formation of self-identity as an adult. But researchers say it’s a fact that this “bump” exists. And for these visitors, that period falls in the 1950s.
“The other thing is that that you have difficulty strategically recalling your past,” Berntsen explains. “If you start a conversation asking, ‘What did you experience when you were young?’ then you are asking for strategic retrieval, which we know is not going to work. Instead you need to bypass the need for executive process by providing some sort of associations and then hoping that a memory can be activated.”
Berntsen says there’s a need for more research on associative triggers, which is something her team is studying. But physical objects and music seem particularly promising. And the good news is that these things seem to have an effect even outside a holistic environment like the House of Memories.
Berntsen’s advice to those looking for ways to spark the memory of a loved one with dementia? “Go object-hunting in the basement,” she says. “Clean up the house and you’ll find objects to start a conversation.”
At the House of Memories, each visit ends with a sing-along in the parlor. During the visit on this day, there’s a moment of added drama as the hostess tries to turn on one of the vintage lamps in the room and is foiled by the electrical system. But one of the visitors — the only man in the group — manages to locate a hidden switch. This is followed by laughter and applause.
It’s small successes like this that show how the experience can work, says Henning Lindberg of the museum.
“When people are old and with dementia, we are taking too much care of them,” says Lindberg, who came up with the idea for the House of Memories. “[We say] ‘Sit down. Do you want coffee? Can I get a blanket?’ No! If you want coffee, make it yourself! Of course, it will take double the time to make those things, but it doesn’t matter because they will be useful again. It’s what they tell us again and again and again — ‘I’m so happy I could be used.’ ”
As visitors leave, they are noticeably lightened. But Lindberg says he’s witnessed even more dramatic transformations: people talking for the first time in years, forgetting to use their canes, recalling stories their children have never heard. And, he says, word is spreading.
“Once or twice a week, I have contact from another museum,” he says.
In fact, there are already several other museums, mostly in Europe, trying out this model.
Lindberg says the biggest hurdle for institutions is that it represents a change in the role of museum interpreter from explainer to listener or even caregiver. For example, he says, people with dementia cry sometimes.
“There was a museum who had contacted me and they said, ‘We can’t treat them if they are crying.’ And I said, ‘Why not?’ [And they said], ‘But how are we going to do it?’ Well, you have to take their hand and comfort them.”
And very soon, Lindberg says, even more people will be in need of this kind of comfort. That’s when the House of Memories will be getting an upgrade — to the 1960s.