Museums are all about preserving mementos and memories.
That’s why the Minnesota Historical Society is tapping into its collection in a new way, by reaching out to those whose memories are slipping away.
In September, the institution launched a statewide dementia-awareness program that uses museum resources to teach professionals and family caregivers how to use everyday objects to draw stories out of people with memory loss.
A core element of the educational initiative, called House of Memories, is an app for tablets and smartphones that incorporates more than 100 interactive pages of items from the Historical Society’s vast trove of memorabilia from the 1920s to the 1980s.
Available to the public for free on the museum’s website, the app enables users to select photographs, music and video that match a person’s interests and life story, and to easily upload their own images.
“When relationships change, conversations change,” said Maren Levad, the Minnesota Historical Society’s museum access specialist, who spent five years developing the dementia awareness program. “People struggle to find ways to make meaningful connections.”
House of Memories first launched in England in 2012 at the National Museums Liverpool as a social and health care model to reduce the stress and isolation experienced by families and people living with dementia.
Backed by the British government and state-funded health care partners, the museum spent $5 million to develop a mobile app and a training protocol for professionals as well as friends and family who sometimes feel at a loss when interacting with loved ones.
“It’s like having a museum in your pocket,” said Brian Hallett, a U.K.-based trainer who was in St. Paul in March for a three-day training session at the Minnesota History Center. “It unlocks stories. One thing triggers another thing, and it’s something people can do together.”
Levad instantly saw the potential to form a partnership with the Liverpool group and import the idea to Minnesota. Some people raised eyebrows when Levad first proposed moving the museum’s work into the health-care arena. But the work flows from the Historical Society’s core belief that all stories have value. Helping people with dementia rekindle their own stories furthered Levad’s goal to break down barriers to museums, especially among disenfranchised groups.
The Minnesota Historical Society used state funds from the Legacy Amendment’s Arts and Cultural Heritage Fund and received two grants from the Institute of Museum and Library Services totaling $296,000. The funds helped the museum customize the app with its own artifacts and seek feedback from Minnesotans with dementia and their caregivers.
Levad and her staff worked with Charter House, the Mayo Clinic’s continuing care retirement community in Rochester, as well as Rakhma Homes, which provides assisted living for people with Alzheimer’s in four Twin Cities neighborhoods.
They showed hundreds of images to people attending memory cafés and at the Gathering, a drop-off program that provides respite for family caregivers.
The Historical Society also worked with the St. Paul African-American Faith ACT Community to populate the app with images of black Minnesotans that have universal appeal.
“The app is a great springboard for conversation,” said Maureen Aksamit, cognitive health and wellness director at Mayo’s Charter House, where nearly half the staff of 500 took part in the inaugural training session last fall led by a House of Memories team from England.
“The relationship, in my opinion, is the most important thing we can do to help people feel comfortable and develop a sense of trust with staff members,” Aksamit said. “This helps us get to know people, to get to know their favorite things, what they like to talk about and share their interests.”
Mary Surleta grew up on a farm in a small town in Michigan, and, as a young woman, took the train to Chicago after the harvest to work at J.C. Penney. At 94, she now lives at the Rakhma Harmony Home in Golden Valley with eight other women with dementia. As she ate lunch on a recent afternoon, Surleta smiled broadly and clapped when manager Amber Harmon pulled out an iPad and showed her photos of farm life.
“Sometimes when she’s having a not-so-good day, I’ll sit on the couch with her and show her the photos, things from her past, and it makes it all the better,” said Harmon, who also uploaded personal photos of Surleta’s wedding day, a class photo from the two-room schoolhouse she attended, even her favorite poem.
“If we can create just a moment of joy, just one moment, that’s what it’s all about,” Harmon said.
While Levad tried to ensure that images in the app represented a diversity of experiences — two Chinese-American boys building a snowman, a group of African-American women working on a quilt — her next push is to create pathways on the app directly aimed at specific ethnic, racial and cultural groups.
After two years of testing, the Historical Society staff discovered that while many objects have universal appeal, it often takes a specific image to strike a deep chord. Veterans respond best to images from their branch of service and war years. Women remember sewing patterns of their era. A Tinkertoy might stir a memory in one person while a pair of Converse All Stars hits home with another.
Levad is working on grants to develop memory trees for Minnesota’s Ojibwe and Dakota people, hoping to record some honor songs.
The museum also has been asked to develop a memory collection for Jews and Hispanics.
To date, the Minnesota Historical Society has held eight professional training sessions and three workshops for families. Now that more of the museum staff has been trained, Levad aims to pick up the pace.
She believes the tool can help prevent burnout among professional caregivers, who are required to have just four hours of dementia training. But Levad said she gets the most satisfaction from seeing the museum’s work expand beyond its physical walls.
“Museums are basically just stories,” she said. “This app takes museum objects to people who need a little help telling their story or creating new ones together.”
The free app is at www.mnhs.org/houseofmemories.