Lukasa at the Brooklyn Museum

Written on March 14, 2017:

There were many highlights during the month of travel in the US and UK for the publications of the Pegasus Books and Atlantic Books additions of The Memory Code respectively. I expected seeing the two lukasas (more correctly, the plural is nkasa) at the Brooklyn Museum to be one of them. My day there exceeded all expectations.

There are none of the West African Luba memory device known as lukasa in Australia to the best of my knowledge. Despite having read everything I could on them and replicated the technology to act as my own field guide to the birds of Victoria, I had never seen the real thing. I have now!

Curatorial Assistant for the Arts of Asia, Africa, the Pacific Islands, and the Islamic World, Meghan Bill, took me to the storage area where she had the lukasas ready for me. It was sensational to see and hold the real thing.

Research shows that both the front and backs of the lukasa were used as memory spaces. The pattern on the back proved to be very naturally moved through in order when Meghan and I tried stroking it. That pattern is also found on British Neolithic Grooved Ware and Australian Aboriginal shields. It is a pattern which works for humans; they did not share this knowledge between vastly seperate societies. It simply worked so they used it.

The use of lukasa as memory boards has been a fundamental part of my understanding of portable memory devices. This was an incredibly important moment for me.

The lukasa on the Brooklyn Museum site:

You will notice other items in the photo below with Meghan. She had Yoruba divination trays for me to examine (which are also memory devices) and then took me to the Museum’s amazing collection of Pueblo kachina. And the amazing Paracas Tapestry is there as well! That was a discovery to make my heart sing. And there was Nasca pottery and … more posts to come.

Thank you, Meghan and the Brooklyn Museum.

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4 thoughts on “Lukasa at the Brooklyn Museum”

  1. Hello Lynne,
    I came across your Ted Talk online, and was astounded. I had never heard of our ancestors using portable memory tools, and was struck by both the beauty of their concept and appearance. I’ve discovered ancient philosophies too late in life, Derren Brown’s books were the initial gateway, but so far have only applied a rudimentary version of the Peg system. Probably a mild version of social anxiety/ agoraphobia has meant I feel awkward returning to a gallery to explore every nook and cranny, in the hopes of constructing a Memory Palace (something I aim to resolve however). Am I right in thinking Lukasa and similar artefacts served as portable Memory Palaces or journeys? I have a background in design, and was wondering if you thought a drawn version could work effectively, or would I be missing out on the original boards tactile quality?

    1. Hi Barry,

      What an interesting comment. Thank you.

      My main memory palace goes around my home and garden, 120 locations before it heads out into the big world! I have 10 locations in every room, although I usually advise only 5. I think I made them too tight, but it still works a treat. I have four layers of data associated with it. I describe that in detail in Memory Craft. I also describe making a lukasa, and even show a set of lukasas made by a reader of The Memory Code.

      With a background in design, you should be able to create a most divine lukasa, one unique to you. You are right that they function as miniature memory palaces. It is far more effective than a peg system because you can layer more information on each location. A drawn one will work fine. I have experimented using famous paintings in the same way. The planning of your own drawing will help because the process will do most of the work.

      I think a physical device works better because of the tactile nature and also the muscle memory of the movement as you touch each location, even moving the board to do so. But it doesn’t have to be a board – any decorated object will work. I think it is time to start experimenting. Let me know how you go!


  2. Wow, how exciting Lynne! I think I would have felt like a kid in a lolly shop if I were there. How old were those nkasa? Did you learn anything new or different by seeing and holding them in real life? I notice that they have carvings in among the “beads” – did they peg the “beads” down first then add the carvings later, do you think? I can’t wait to read what else you saw there.

    1. It was very exciting, Avril. The boards were late 19th Century or early 20th Century. I will add the Brooklyn Museum links to the blog and here so you can see all the known data. It is their recent use which enabled anthropologists to learn exactly how they were used which was invaluable for me. (I don’t like it being called a divination board, but that is another blog topic for later).

      My bird ‘lukasa’ is a flat rectangle. I was just copying the technology and didn’t plan the layout. The real lukasa are curved perfectly to fit in the hand – curved in structure and the edges. I am working with a craftsman here who is replicating various memory devices for me and will make me a lukasa along the lines of the real thing. That will be very exciting when I get to start encoding it.

      I would imagine that the lukasa was carved first – they even use the natural wood. I know of one in which a crack in the wood is used to represent the River Zaire, now known as the Congo River. It will be so interesting when I design a lukasa for a specific purpose with Tom, the craftsman.

      Thank you so much for your comment,


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