Look lively: using objects to reflect a long life

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At some point in our lives, we’ve probably all discussed the objects we would save if our house was on fire. It makes us think about what things are important to us now, or when we’re older.

In 2013, the novelist Penelope Lively published a memoir called Ammonites and Leaping Fish: a life in time. In the last chapter, she identifies six possessions which speak about who she is, and where’s she been.  These aren’t the objects that are the most expensive or most beautiful. Indeed, Penelope Lively herself commented that they wouldn’t necessary be bought by anyone in a car boot sale!  Her objects were two duck kettle-holders from Maine, two ammonites from a Dorset beach, a fragment of pottery shaped like a leaping fish, a Jerusalem bible, an 18th century sampler used as a model for embroidery, and a porcelain cat.

Based on this book, The Lively Project came into being in 2016, thanks to a small grant from the Wellcome Trust. We are a truly interdisciplinary team based in Queen’s University Belfast, comprising two gerontologists from the ARK Ageing Programme, one historian, an arts coordinator, and a visual artist. Our aim was to explore how material objects can reflect what it means to live a long life.

Six people aged 61 to 80 volunteered to participate in the project, and each took part an interview to talk about their six objects, and why they chose them. At an arts workshop, the participants worked with visual artist Gemma Hodge to interpret the meaning of their objects. It goes without saying that most objects brought back very personal memories – some happy, some sad.  But some reflected the social and cultural changes that have happened throughout their lives.  For example, a key for producing Morse code brings home how much communication technology has evolved since then.  But this also shows how we learn from what goes before us – did you know that the famous Nokia SMS tone is actually the Morse code for the letters ‘SMS’?

The culmination of the project was an inspiring exhibition called ‘Something of who I am’ at the Crescent Arts Centre in Belfast, based on the 36 objects, and quotes from participants and Penelope Lively. The exhibition was both lively and poignant, and challenged visitors to think about their future older selves. It made us think about how we got to this stage in our lives, either via the medical intervention of pills, or the freedom provided by a bicycle.  The exhibition focused on longevity, and how a life can be well lived.  Society may judge our participants on how they look today, without thinking about the adventures they had on a solo motorbike expedition around North Africa, or the hundreds of children they influenced during their teaching career, or the political statements they made with yarnbombing.

It’s certainly made me reflect on my life so far, and what my six objects might be.