Proustian Memory and Multisensory Archival Outreach – Philip Milnes-Smith

Philip Milnes-Smith attended the Sound Archives Unlocked workshop at the London Metropolitan Archives (LMA). Here he focuses on LMA’s use of sound archives to engage with elderly residents from the Caribbean community. Philip’s thoughts on the rest of the day can be found here:

Just over a century ago, the novelist Marcel Proust invented the term “involuntary memory” for an experiential memory awoken by senses other than sight (in his character’s case, eating a Madeleine). Such memories may transport the person back to a specific occasion, or to the very different world of, for example, their childhood. In a similar vein, those working with people with dementia tend to employ multisensory approaches because, as dementia progresses, and ‘books of memories’ are lost from more shelves of the metaphorical bookcase (including the lowest), the best-preserved memories remain those made in childhood, youth and early adult life. These can be awakened by sounds (including music), aromas, and tastes.  

Kirsty Kerr’s presentation at the recent Sound Archives Unlocked workshop was a reflection on a recent Memory Archives Windrush Day event at the LMA targeting elderly Black and Minority Ethnic residents of care homes. In addition to participatory Caribbean music workshops and the opportunity to eat Caribbean food, attendees also had the opportunity to engage with an art installation (Michael McMillan’s ‘Front Room’), and archives including sound (using tape and record players). As Medha Chotai’s recent SfNP blogpost reminds us, archives have sometimes been seen as time machines and this potential is perhaps harder to realise if the glass in our display cases acts as a barrier to interaction. 

Image courtesy of London Metropolitan Archives

At the Memory Archives event, by contrast, the use of surrogates (authentic to the point of newly pressed vinyl and mixtape cassettes remade from digitised originals) allowed for a ‘please do touch’ mindset. In addition, one sound-file was made for the event, overlaying music tracks and specially recorded environmental noise from Brixton Market. This made me reflect on the evocative ambient sounds of, for example, a departing audience which normally fall to the digital ‘cutting room floor’ when preparing a playback version of a performance recording, but which might have the capacity to stir reminiscences.

Audio mixer
Photo by on Unsplash

Reframed as questions, a couple of Kirsty’s conclusions seem to me to deserve a broader audience:

• Should heritage be multisensory rather than based only on visual stimuli, to engage more diverse audiences?

• Can sound archives help us move beyond objects and documents to engage with living experience?

• Does animating sound archives (and programming activities around them) make them more accessible to non-traditional audiences?

Photographs and user/partner comments testified not only to the success of the Memory Archives event for the care home residents, their support workers, and family members, but also the demand for other sessions in other places. If you have run successful outreach with older people with additional needs, or utilised sound archives with other audiences we would be very interested in hearing from you. 

If you are interested in other outreach approaches with older people with additional needs, please check out this presentation from our January conference.  You may also be interested in exploring the BBC RemArc platform, and the LMA’s Unlocking Our Sound Heritage website ( and blog (

Philip Milnes-SmithALES Events Officer



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    Liked by 1 person

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