Asian narrative scrolls – I want to know more!

Last week I had the most exciting surprise. The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) has a Japanese narrative scroll on display. I want to find out all I can about these gorgeous artworks. Please let me know if you can help!


I am convinced a contemporary form of these artworks could be a wonderful memory device to use in education. These long scrolls from China, Japan and Korea (that I know of so far) tell stories through the most gorgeous images.

I remember from my studies in education and from experience in the classroom that mode shifts aid memory massively. A mode shift is basically taking information in one format and changing that format when recording it. That change forces you to engage deeply with the information. You can read and take notes without really concentrating, but if you have to change written information into images, or aural information into your own words, or written information into song, then you will remember it.

I believe that changing information into a narrative in pictures would work a treat. There are some written annotations as well. The narrative could be done in quick sketches or, even more wonderfully, a beautifully illustrated scroll. I am planning to do a contemporary version as one of My Memory Experiments.

Would these scrolls also work as a way to provide information to students in a highly memorable form? You really need to engage with them to know what is going on. The way these scrolls were once used suggests that is exactly the case. From the little I know so far, they were carefully preserved in boxes and brought out to be ‘read’ as they were slowly unrolled. All the detail makes them so intriguing, it would be bliss to study them.

The NGV scroll is over eleven metres long. Below is a detail from it along with its little sign. There is a bit more on the NGV website.

I first saw a Chinese narrative scroll, also called a handscroll, at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York about a decade ago and have been longing to find out more ever since. I saw them again in February and was more delighted by them than ever. I had no idea we had one in Australia – I suspect there are more for me to stumble over. I sincerely hope so!

I want to find out everything I can about these gorgeous items. If you know more or can point me to resources, please add a comment! I’d love to hear from you.

Is the Bayeux Tapestry effectively the same thing? Are there other examples? So much to learn!SaveSave

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A new book – Memory Craft

Great excitement! I have just signed a contract with my publisher, Allen & Unwin, to do a new book. The working title (may not end up being the real title) is Unlocking the Memory Code. Publication date is probably early 2019. There is a lot of work to do first! Edit: it became Memory Craft.

This book is all about using the most effective memory methods from across cultures and throughout time. It is all about how we can use these methods to enhance our lives every day.

One of my great pleasures is encoding layer upon layer in my new lukasa, designed to record the history or writing. Ironic, isn’t it? This beautiful object was made for me by Tom Chippindall.

The vast majority of the emails and messages I receive are about the indigenous memory methods and how we might apply them in contemporary life. The extraordinary memory skills of our ancestors have been gradually lost with the invent of writing and even more so with the prevalence of information technology. Many readers are concerned about this and want to redress the trend by using their memories much more effectively.

I am simply astounded every day by what I can memorise and the way I can then build on the knowledge which is so firmly grounded in the memory devices. I am able to see patterns and the big picture in ways which are just not possible without this basic knowledge at my fingertips. It is also wonderful fun!

Throughout the book I will look at the changes in memory techniques over the millennia and discuss the possible impact on education and on memory loss with ageing. Recent research in neuroscience explains exactly why the memory methods of indigenous culture are so effective. I will report on the science and celebrate indigenous intellect. I will also emphasis how much everything is to remember when it is brought to like through stories and vivid characters.

As indigenous and early literate cultures were masters of memory, so it is from them that we can learn the most. I am adding to the lessons from oral cultures discussed in The Memory Code to include medieval memory systems, ideas from the Renaissance and from ancient Chinese and Japanese handscrolls. I will also look at mnemonic tricks from contemporary times.

The topics to be covered in Unlocking will include the most successful examples from My 40 Memory Experiments which have now been adjusted to reflect the questions I am most often asked.

I am learning a foreign language (French) despite having failed dismally to do so at school.  I am using a range of methods to memorise vocabulary and grammar and going really well. And even taking on Chinese (Mandarin).

I have devised a system for memorising names and faces by adapting the concept of a medieval bestiary.

I memorise temporary lists when we are out birding, going shopping or given verbally using a visual alphabet, adapted from those used during the Renaissance.

I am continuing to memorise more details about all the countries in the world and constantly adding to my walks through pre-history and history. I use the field guide to the 412 Victorian birds from memory constantly as husband Damian and I go birding often.

I am attending art classes every week to create the most beautiful contemporary adaptions I can manage of the bestiary, visual alphabet and Chinese hand scrolls. I am becoming addicted to everything about art, especially watercolour. I am using a version of the Inca knotted string khipu (quipu) to record the history of art. As many researchers suggest, the khipu is really nearer to writing than a pure mnemonic device.

I am also creating a personal ‘winter count’ based on the stunning mnemonic skins of the Plains Indians of North America. The one pictured below if the famous Lone Dog’s winter count. I am astonished how little of my life I could remember chronologically until I started this project. How much will this object help me hold onto my identity into very old age?

And every day I train for the Australian Memory Championships. Being old (I’m 65) does not mean a fading memory. I can now memorise a shuffled deck of cards in 12 minutes – way down from the 35 minutes just a month ago. I can memorise long strings of random numbers in decimal and binary and many other useless but surprisingly enjoyable feats.

Life is very good and I have all the readers of The Memory Code to thank!

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Dorset Culture and polar bears

I receive fascinating emails every day from readers of The Memory Code. Every now and then someone goes a lot further. Rob Smith was one of those people. He carved an absolutely delightful polar bear in the manner of the Dorset  of Igloolik in Canada, who lived between 700 and 2,500 years ago. And then he sent it to me as a present. How lucky am I?

This story highlights the way indigenous art forms are so often assumed to be fantastical rather than critical objects of importance to rational knowledge. My bias is showing in this post!


Rob’s exquisitely carved bear is an exact replica of the objects found in one of the few Dorset graves, as reported in the article Human Dorset Remains from Igloolik, Canada referenced at the end of this blog.*

The tiny ivory plug holds the ochre in place which is stored in the small cavity in the bear’s neck under the wooden plug. Rob did an ivory plug as well, as some bears had ivory plugs. They would not have both at the same time. My little bear is 12 centimetres long.

Writer and archaeology enthusiast from Toronto, Ontario, Eve Richardson, pointed me to the following report from the Canadian Museum of History about the Dorset Culture and their many representations of polar bears.

Clicking on the image will take you to the full article

http://www.historymuseum.ca/blog/spotlight-on-research-decoding-dorset-polar-bear-effigies/

Fascinated by the Dorset bears, Matthew Betts, contacted Ian Stirling, a Scientist Emeritus with the Canadian Wildlife Service and expert on polar bears. Betts wrote:

I sent him multiple photographs of the carvings, and he quickly determined that the Dorset were depicting polar bears in natural poses — and, moreover, that almost all of the art showed polar bears in hunting stances related to stalking and hunting their preferred prey, seals.

Betts continued with a new question:

These insights were novel because previously the polar bear carvings had been interpreted as portraying bears in fantastical poses, representing “spirit” bears moving between spiritual realms. Some had even been interpreted as “flying bears.” What did this new information mean for the interpretation of Dorset spirituality?

By always focussing on the spirituality – which is the area which differentiates us most – we cloud our respect for the intellectual achievements we respect so highly such as that of scientists like Ian Stirling. Betts concludes:

I believe the polar bear effigies may have been used to remind and teach the Dorset the proper methods of hunting seals — using stillness, stealth and cunning. The carvings may also have been used in a ceremony to draw hunting prowess from the effigies and the polar bears they represented, to increase the hunter’s chance of success.

Given my personal bias, I want much more acknowledgement of the likely depth of knowledge of the bears and the environment encoded with the oral tradition of the Dorset Culture. I want the hunters’ likely increase in success to be linked to their ceremonies in which their rational knowledge and well-honed hunting strategies were conveyed.

Meanwhile, my little Dorset bear sits on my desk to remind me not only of the intellect of indigenous cultures but also what wonderful readers I have!

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* The article which Rob Smith used to aid the carving of my precious little bear:

Human Dorset Remains from Igloolik, Canada
Niels Lynnerup, Jørgen Meldgaard, Jan Jakobsen, Martin Appelt, Anders Koch and Bruno Frøhlich, Arctic, Vol. 56, No. 4 (Dec., 2003), pp. 349-358.