Make Sense
British Library

person drawing on gridded paper

The British Library asked us to adapt our Make Sense programme to better engage people living dementia with their amazing archive.

older people researching
Participants researching Medieval Bestiary

Following hand and breathing exercises, week 1 saw the participants drawing in response to sound. These sounds were found in the library’s archive and covered a broad range of sources. Despite the familiarity of the sounds, such as those from around the home, the exercise produced lots of unexpected visual results. Some sounds also evoked nostalgia and became talking points, especially those take were recorded on the coast and stimulated a connection to past holidays such as visiting the seaside.

expressive drawings
Drawings to sound

Week 2 took inspiration from Medieval Bestiary, and its inventive depiction of animals, beasts and monsters. This lead to the participants creating their own compositions, either using animals they were dear to them or inventive combinations of animals from their imaginations. We then reflected these compositions using an accessible form of printmaking that involves engraving into polystyrene, rather than lino, which can be difficult for people with dexterity challenges.

print of horses
Anne's polystyrene print

As part of week 3, we visited the ‘Maps & Views’ exhibition, which is a small selection of the 4.5 million maps the British Library holds. The participants discussed how maps connected to their own identity and past journeys which involved map-reading. Once we were back in the room, they set about creating their own maps by first establishing outlines, and then filling the sections in using watercolour paints, similar to the techniques they have viewed in the exhibition.

Colourful monoprint
A warm up exercise making sculptures from orange peel

In Week 4, we spoke about the origins of the script seen on tablets, questioning what writing might add to be a piece of visual communication. We made up stories in response to some of the tablets seen in the British Library collection, while some of the participant's shared skills such as writing in short-hand. Remarkably many skills which are part of our long-term memory are not affected by the dementia.

After working in 2D, each of the participants was given clay make their own "cuneiform". The clay, especially when wet, is very sensory to use, with many of the participants enjoying to explore which different marks they could make with their hands vs tools. With everyone pleased with their results we discussed how long our tablets would last vs those in the collection.

Colourful monoprint
One of the participant's cosmic maps

In week 5, we explored the library's collection of Peruvian textiles, particularly taking note of the geometric patterns and bright use of colour. In the exercise that followed, we used grided paper to come up with our own patterns thinking about symmetry and asymmetry before adding vibrancy with oil pastels. The results were really striking and produced really competent results regardless of the participant's desire for abstraction or order.

drawing on gridded paper