Archives, Dementia and Reminiscence – Medha Chotai

For my Master’s dissertation, I explored the reminiscence based services provided by archives for people with dementia, aiming to understand the impact that such services have. Whilst initially it was meant to take a case study approach, looking at different archives and comparing their approaches, the final product was something rather different. My focus shifted to evaluation to ensure sustainability and understand the impact and usefulness of the services that archives provide.

The metaphor of archives as memory is something that is commonly seen within the profession. The idea that memory is a justification for archives is seen in the mission statements of archival institutions and the fact that archives are commonly associated with history and the study of the past again relates to memory. I think Erik Ketelaar sums it up best: ‘archives are … time machines enabling man to carry his thoughts, experiences and achievements through time’.(1)

Following through with Ketelaar’s idea that archives are time machines, reminiscence services are an embodiment of this in a more formalised manner. In this case records are used with people with dementia to reminiscence about their past, because memories of early life are less compromised by the illness. For example, memories from early life are often stronger, so records relating to childhood and schooling are useful in these situations. But even records relating fashion or milestone events can have an impact. Geriatric nurse Hamilton provides twenty themes that are suitable, however she emphasises that these are not prescriptive and I would argue that archives relate to many of these themes.

Child-raising customs; Entertainment (movies, books); Ethnic, cultural, or family tradition; Fashion; Favourites (Christmas, other holidays); “Firsts” (car, telephone, date, dress, house); Food perpetration; Garden; Home health customs; Medical care and practices; Music; Occupation, skills, hobbies; Presidents, politics, election; Relationships (pets and relatives); Romance; School days; Significant events (weddings, births and graduation); Transportation; Travel; Weather(2)

Take for example the BBC’s Remarc platform which uses archival content over various decades from TV, radio and sport, covering themes such as childhood and music, demonstrating the relevance and appropriateness of archives.(3) Similarly, the Nestlé archive has downloadable reminiscence packs on their website which are based on product packaging from various decades.

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Yet, outreach is not only possible through providing reminiscence services that involves archive content, the archive can also be used as a dementia friendly environment which allows the people with dementia to be independent and engage in social interactions, something that is also noted in the Archives Unlocked vision developed by The National Archives.(4) By adapting the environment, it can be made appropriate for people with dementia. Dementia Action provide a basic checklist which includes having a quiet space, clear signage, lighting and changing and toilet facilities.(5)

While there are different ways in which support can be provided for people with dementia – on-site sessions, online resources, reminiscence boxes – it is difficult to ascertain the impact of these activities. And without a way to measure this it increases the difficulty of proving its value and ensuring its sustainability. Whilst ad-hoc feedback through forms and speaking with those using the services does allow for some understanding, it does not provide consistent or comparable data that can be used across services. By having a systematic way to measure the impact a fuller understanding of the impact can be understood.

The Arts Observational Scale is an evaluation tool that can be used for performance arts activities in a healthcare setting, but has also been validated for arts based interventions.(6) This scale is straightforward to use, requires minimal training to be used and allows for both qualitative and quantitative data to be collected. For example, part of the scale allows mood to be measured using a simple scale that uses images to describe the mood. By using a standardised tool such as the Arts Observational Scale, results can be compared across services to gain an understanding of the impact of archive reminiscence services.

Arts Observational Scale Mood Score

The Arts Observational Scale Mood Score.

Ultimately, archives have a strong connection to memory and the variety of services provided by archives in relation to dementia clearly demonstrates their usefulness. It is through systematic and standardised evaluation that the impact of these services can be understood, something that the Arts Observational Scale could provide.

Medha Chotai, Cataloguing Archivist, Tower Hamlets Local History Library & Archive


(1) Eric Ketelaar, ‘The archive as a time machine’, in Proceedings of the DLM-Forum, 2002, p. 580.
(2) Hamilton quoted in Irene Burnside, ‘Themes and props: adjuncts for reminiscence therapy groups’, in Barbara K Haight and Jeffrey D Webster (eds.), The Art and Science of Reminiscence (Taylor and Francis: Bristol, 1995), p. 156.
(3) BBC RemArch, at [accessed 4 April 2019].
(4) The National Archives, Archives Unlocked, (Crown Publishing: London, 2017), p. 10.
(5) Dementia Friendly Environments, at[accessed 4 April 2019].
(6) Daisy Fancourt and Michelle Poon, Validation of the Arts Observational Scale (ArtsObS) for the Evaluation of Performing Arts Activities in Health Care Settings, Arts &Health, 8:2, (2015), p. 148.

This article is based on Medha’s dissertation and an article published in Archives and Records. The article can be accessed here:

One comment

  1. Pingback: Proustian Memory and Multisensory Archival Outreach – ARALearning

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