I’m beginning to wonder we are heading towards a kind of societal dementia.
As anybody who has experienced the affect that dementia has on someone close to them, they will know it is a particularly insidious and cruel condition. Dementia eats away at a variety of thought processes; affecting language, problem solving and judgement. With the slow painful loss of these vital functions, a person’s sense of self can be stripped away; their personality can change until all that is left is a stranger in the family and they can be a stranger to themselves.
Memory is the key. Memory records our experiences, providing the building blocks to knowledge, understanding and skills. Memory is learning. Because of memory we can recall what has gone before and apply that experience to new and changing contexts. We develop thinking and language skills, learn how to problem-solve and make judgements. Memories tell us about our past, who we are and where we have come from.
Memories are our own personal archive. As long as we can access them, we can live and learn, share memories and build new ones, we can develop and grow. Dementia prevents us from accessing those memories, locking away all that we have experienced, learnt and loved away from us, leading to a creeping, perpetual forgetfulness; trapping us to an endless cycle of repetition.
Tragically, dementia is not something you can stop. Neither is it self-inflicted.
It would be a truism and a cliché to say we are living in difficult times. An economic crisis for which no one wants to take responsibility and an aging population, increasingly suffering from conditions such as dementia, have led to what those in public office refer to as “difficult decisions”, while brandishing the machete of austerity and hacking great lumps out of the public service budget.
And putting at very real risk our collective memory.
Heritage organisations such as museums, archives and libraries are not merely nice places to have. They are not luxury items that we can only afford in the good times, they are the custodians of our community and cultural memories, which they hold, in trust, on our behalf. They tell us not just our history, but our histories, all the strands of thought, knowledge and experience that have made us today. They can raise questions as much as provide answers, but only in questioning do we learn.
But these Sites of Memory only matter as long as we can access them. Just as our personal memories are only useful to us if we can get to them, and with them our experience, knowledge and skills, then our archives, museums and libraries are only useful to us, as a community, if we can get through the doors.
And increasingly, we can’t.
We will suffer culturally and intellectually from the lack of access to our own historical archives, our own community memory. It is a sad irony that the very architecture of one of these Sites of Memory currently under threat, the Library of Birmingham, was designed to highlight the treasures held within its Archives. Yet it now appears as if that “golden box” is destined to become increasingly inaccessible to the people of Birmingham, preventing access to our historical memory and increasingly, our sense of who we are as a society, a city, a country.
Right now, difficult decisions do need to be made. As someone who has experienced the devastation dementia causes, I know social care is a priority, but we cannot allow ourselves to be locked out of the places that hold our collective memories. We have to challenge those wielding the machete of austerity, we have to try and find another way or societal dementia will be as insidious and cruel as the real thing. It will affect our society, our communities, ourselves; it will be self-inflicted and equally as tragic.