Essay: Artificiosa Memoria: Mnemonic Utopia and Museums (2002)

Pablo Helguera

Artificiosa Memoria:

Mnemonic Utopia and Museums

(Notes on The Gallerie des Alephs: Academic Exercises Towards a Museum of Museums)


Karl Ernst Osthaus Museum Der Stadt- Hagen


The Gallerie des Alephs: Academic Exercises Towards a Museum of Museums is the result of a  project  that reflects on the iconography of containment  of knowledge and its visual metaphors specifically as they relate to the origins of the modern museum, and their relationships to the ways of visualizing the containment  and retrieval of knowledge,  ranging from the early methods of mnemotechny to the database interfaces used to access global networks today.

The present project for the Karl Ernst Osthaus Museum’s Museutopia exhibition takes into consideration the various attempts –whether poetic or scientific — by the previously mentioned figures to describe an utopian model of containment of knowledge in the form of a repository of museums.

The Gallerie des Alephs draws its name both from the Sephiroth, Borges’ short story and the famous Galerie des Glaces of Versailles.  The work takes shape in the form of a chandelier,  as a reference to the age-old comparison of knowledge and enlightement. Its architectural  structure references John Ruskin’s seven lamps of architecture (sacrificice, truth, power, beauty, life, memory, obedience). The seven sections of the Gallerie also refer to the symbolism that is so extensive  in the hermetic tradition that it would take a long list to present it in detail, but its correspondences include the seven planets of astrology, the seven metals of alchemy, the seven days of the week, etc .  In its resulting structure, the Gallerie’s seven sections  are divided in the various areas of human activity:  History, Natural Science, Social Science, Anthropology, Religion, Philosophy and Art, and Space Science. Each piece of the chandelier bears the name  of a different museum of the world.

Museums are the concrete historical embodiment of our utopia of knowledge. As a cumulative civilization, Western culture needs to have a repository of things which attest to the passage of time as landmarks in a journey. It is through them where we encounter physical evidence of our collective memory. Even though the story they tell is always incomplete and based on a somehow arbitrary – and therefore artificial – story, they help us in visualizing a interconnected cultural narrative throughout the times.  As opposed to the dictionary, the encyclopedia, or the library, which provide a compendium of information through texts, the museum offers an organized visualization of this passage of time and transformation of cultures. Furthermore, the museum is a location (locus) where actual images (imagines) are encountered.
Although the cabinets of curiosities or Wunderkammer are often referred to as the origin of the museums, a more strict examination of the museum’s underlying essence may reveal that its real beginnings lie not in the moment when we started to see physical collections of objects, but at the time when we envisioned such spaces in our minds. If we strip the conventional notion of the modern museum from all its attributes with the exception of the two inextricable ones, which is their condition of being a repository (real or imaginary) for images or things (real or imaginary), we arrive to the year 500 BC, when arguably the art of memory was invented.
The Art of Memory, with its formulation of ‘places (topos) for things and places for words’, trained the mind to retain information by storing it metaphorically in ‘memory palaces’ — cerebral galleries stuffed with figurative sculptures and objects to jog the memory. According to Plato, Socrates called memory ‘the Mother of the Muses’. The relationship of such indexical mental architecture to the ‘Chambers of Wonders’ and its successor, the museum, is worth taking a closer look.

I. An Accident and an Anonymous Parenthood
Ut nihil non iisdem verbis redderetur auditum.

Plinii, Naturalis Historiae, VII
If we are to concede the idea that museums emerged from the construct of an artificial space destined to be a repository for certain kind of organized information, then the real beginning of the museum and all utopian sites of knowledge may be marked by the moment when the notion of “artificial memory” is first articulated.  From classical antiquity, “artificial memory” is  differentiated from natural memory as it being a system intentionally created in order to make us retrieve a piece of information. In opposition to natural memory, which springs off from natural recollection of events and things, artificial memory needs to be mentally visualized through a conscious process of organization and retrieval of information from specific places or loci. A locus is a place easily grasped by memory, such as a house or a garden; an image (imagines) is a form, mark, or simulacra that we wish to remember.

The origin of this notion revolves around a historical catastrophe around the poet Simonides of Ceos (c. 556 – 468 BC). According to the story, one time the poet Simonides attended a banquet to deliver one of his poems. As he stepped out of the palace for a moment, the roof happened to crumble down and crush all the party guests. Their bodies were so defaced that they were unrecognizable to their relatives; however, Simonides remembered the exact placement of each one of the guests and therefore was able to identify each one of them. This incident made him reflect that it is through an orderly placement of things when we best remember. Simonides’ anecdote and the supposed reflections he derived from it made him to be considered the father of the art of memory.

Yet, there is no surviving Greek text on such a practice. It is only through three surviving Latin texts on the subject where we learn about the systems of organization of memory in the Latin and Greek world.

Cicero, in his writings on rethoric known as De Oratore, makes reference to Simonides’ story in describing the system of locis and imagines as important instruments for the mnemonic techniques. Additionally, Cicero mentions that the importance of Simonides’ system lies in the stress placed on the sense of sight, as it is the “keenest of all our senses”. Cicero’s precepts from De oratore, thus follow a very strict visual sets of rules for images, places, things and words, which were very admired and followed in later eras.
The second major classic influence on the subject of memory is the work by Quintilian. Quintilian’s contribution to mnemotechny lied mostly in helping to articulate a simpler system of memorization through learning. Quintilian was ambivalent  about  the usefulness of imagining palaces of memory, although paradoxically, as he describes this system in his treatise with  accuracy,  it provides us with  a good idea on how  an architectural  memory palace would be constructed in  antiquity.
However, it is an anonymous text  titled Ad Herennium which would become the basis for almost the  entire Western tradition  of memory.  Written by an unknown teacher  of rethoric near 86 BC., this enigmatic textbook  on rethorics has perhaps the most influential sections on memory ever written.

In Ad Herennium, the notions of memory and location are conjured in a formula that became the key component  of every  definition  of memory systems ever since: constat igitur artificiosa memoria ex locis et imaginibus,  meaning that artificial memory is established from the conjunction of places and images. Like Cicero, Ad Herennium establishes a series of rules of kinds of loci to be imagined in order to place the necessary images for things (general concepts) or images for words (concrete texts to be memorized). However, Ad Herennium’s characterization of the process of imagination and retrieval and the language of symbols to be utilized (some of it apparently based on the zodiac), became the true basis for further Western models of mnemonic systems. Shockingly, Ad Herennium stipulates in its descriptions that the place where memories should be placed in a neutral space to facilitate the experience — an idea which could be seen as preceding the “white box” notion of modern art.
Although these classic works were very influential in ages to come, their main objective was to teach the rethoric student, and not the person engaged in any specifically visually-driven activity. It would have taken a particular context for certain persons to start regarding memory techniques as a vehicle to something more than just oratory or rethoric.  This context could have been provided by works like the ones of Pliny the Elder. Pliny’s Naturalis Historiae is full of encyclopedic and informational descriptions, which may well be considered the original inspiration of the Wunderkammer. Pliny’s documentary-like voice in his compendium shows a certain absence of personal opinion that in a way parallels the voice of what would eventually  be adopted as the informative-didactic  voice the classic museum. His topics cover practically all aspects of the Wunderkammer: geology, botany, ethnography, zoology and medicine, among others.  Aside from being perhaps the most monumental classic work on the subject of natural history, Pliny includes a section on the art of memory in the book 7 of his compendium, which has been one of its most influential chapters through the Renaissance and to the present. In it we receive  a short account of notable cases of memory in the ancient world, most notably Cyrus, who knew all the names of his soldiers, Mithriades of Pontus who spoke the 22 languages of his people.  Pliny was a contemporary of Quintilian, who taught Pliny the younger and who, as mentioned before, developed mnemonic techniques assigning thoughts to imaginary places in order to remember complicated details.

Even though Pliny is not the only classical author who wrote about memory, his writings may have been influential for the future intersections of creative mnemonic devices and a rational division of things.  We know that the Jesuits of the Renaissance ( amongst them Athanasius Kircher ) were influenced in their construction of memory systems and palaces.  The influence goes on through the work of Jorge Luis Borges, who in his story ‘Funes el Memorioso” makes a reference to the memory passage in Pliny.

III. Palaces of Memory and Performativity
a. Theater Builders
The act of mnemotechnics is a mentally performative –maybe even acrobatic– act, which now can be compared to the modern role of the curator in museums, as the agent who assigns a place in the specific place of the palace.

Renaissance memory took the step of creating actual places where to store and preserve the extraordinary knowledge.  The first Wunderkammer of which we have notice appears in Vienna in 1550, becoming a physical representation of all the imaginary repositories of memory that were referred to in antiquity. It could be said that during the Middle Ages physical repositories such as treasure chests and churches would be precursors of the Wunderkammer, but their purposes were very different.

Another conceptual precursor of the Wunderkammer does appear before that time. In 1534, Erasmus learns about the existence of a certain Giuilio Camillo, who was in a life time enterprise of building a memory theater. Camillo’s theater was a a physical representation of the universe expanding from first causes through the stages of creation and included emblematic paintings and sculptures with drawers full of related texts at their feet.

No actual illustration of the theater survives, but only descriptions of some who saw it under construction, and a dictated statement by Camillo himself at the end of his life where he describes the components of his theater (the theater was never finished). It was constituted by the seven pillars of Solomon’s House of Wisdom. “By these columns, signifying most stable eternity, we are to understand the seven Sephiroth of the super-celestial world which are the seven measures of the fabric of the celestial and inferior worlds in which are contained the ideas of all things both in the celestial and in the inferior worlds”.

Although Camillo’s theater wasn’t a repository of fantastic objects like a Wunderkammer, it was a displayed compendium of revelations about the terrenal and celestial world, and it had the goal to embody the inherent utopian essence similar to all museums: being a mirror of the universe as we know it.  But more importantly, Camillo’s theater was also a place where a transformational experience was promised: according to the information that a friend of Erasmus relays to us, Camillo claimed that whoever entered his theatre “would be able to discourse on any subject no less fluently than Cicero.” Thus his theater was a place for education, and possibly transformation.
After Camillo, other memory theater systems were construed, most notably the one ellaborated by the English hermetist Robert Fludd (1574-1637) in his memory theater system. But it is Camillo’s theater which introduces two significant notions: one of the space where a discovery of a revelation occurs, and secondly, the fact that the space constitutes a microcosm of the human and divine experience. The metaphor of the theater as a representation of the world was not uncommon during the late 1500s and the early 1600s, as it is exemplified by many literary works, such as Calderón’s ‘El Gran Teatro del Mundo” (the Theater of the World), an allegory of the human life represented through the heavenly bodies of the universe. After the death of Camillo, Giordano Bruno would emerge publishing works which were clearly inspired in his theater. His work De Umbris Idearium (Shadows) was a hermetic work on memory set to provide mystical revelations. Bruno worked from a similar system to Camillo in assigning images to the various areas of human and divine activity, marking perhaps the culmination of the Renaissance hermetic tradition. Camillo’s theater is believed to have been influential to other hermetic models, whether real or abstract, of complete containment  of knowledge. Examples of these are  Khunrath’s Amphitheatrum Sapientiae Aeternae and the Rocicrucian Vault of Christian Rosenkreuntz, which represented a “compendium of the universe”.

b. The Jesuits

Athanasius Kircher (1602- 1680) is considered one of the first museum builders. He was the founder of the Museum of the Collegium Romanum in the mid 1600s, one of the first collections in the world which could be said to have been a museum, and one of the places with the most extraordinary scientific objects that he collected.
Kircher, possibly the first curator in history, came from a historical tradition of an order which was closely attached to knowledge. His story, though, is preceded by the one of a

Jesuit friar, who,  25 years before the birth of Kircher, in 1577, was setting sail on a mission to  Asia.

This man was Matteo Ricci, a Jesuit friar from Macerata who traveled to China in a lifetime mission of spreading Catholicism.  Ricci’s weapons of  conversion weren’t many, but they were convincing. Amongst the techniques he used to impress the Chinese, he developed a treatise on mnemonic techniques in 1596 and translated works such as the ones of Pliny on memory.
The difference with Matteo Ricci’s system to the one of his Reinassance counterparts is that he devised a specific system of eight images –four memory images and four religious ones– which constituted the core of the palace.  The first image was of two warriors grappling, the second a tribeswoman from the West, the third a peasant cutting grain, the fourth a maidservant holding a child in her arms.  The four religious images were the one of Christ and Peter at the sea of Galilee, the second Christ and his two disciples at the Emmaus, of the men of Sodom falling blinded behind an angel of the Lord, and finally the one of the virgin mary holding the Christ child. In Ricci’s Palace structure, however, the eight images end up becoming seven, because the fourth picture and the fourth image (the woman and the child) blend into one and only, becoming so to speak the axis, or the Aleph, of the palace.

Ricci’s palace metaphors are significant for various reasons. He, who translated Pliny into Chinese, followed the classical naturalist interest in creating compendiums of knowledge and at the same time use mnemonic techniques to make them into mental structures.

The performative aspect of the memory act, and the journey –the museum tour– through the space marks the beginning of a conception of the site of knowledge as a place where  –as opposed to the Wunderkammer- there needs to be a personal journey, if minimal, to complete a museum experience.  What brings the art of memory and the Wunderkammer together a step further is that Ricci, impressed by the potentiality of the Chinese ideograms, had envisioned the possibility of using these symbolisms as universal  forms that could transcend languages, and which were far less obscure than all the occult imagery that would be so present in most of major Renaissance thought on memory.

IV.  Tragic Idealists and their Dreams

“Nothing is more sublime than knowing everything”.

Cover phrase in Kircher’s Ars Magna Sciendi (Amsterdam, 1669)

Nowhere did the spirit of the counter-reformation hit stronger than in Latin -America, where Spanish and Portuguese Catholicism nourished the intellectual religious elite. There are yet books to be written on how the marginality of colonial society in America may have led to certain intellectuals to find affinity with marginal mystical and philosophical tendencies such as Hermetism. Yet it was under that context than Sor Juana Inés de la Cruz was raised.  Sor Juana, considered the first poet of the Americas and one of the most important literary figures in the Spanish language, is known for her love sonnets, her religious works and her poignant correspondence that portrays early feminist views. She was also known as an avid mind for knowledge of all kinds. Her cell was full of scientific instruments of astronomy, optics and medicine, which in the New Spain of the 17th century would have been the closest thing to a Wunderkammer.

Her major contributions to Baroque literature is a metaphysical poem titled Primero Sueño (First Dream), which is almost completely unlike the rest of her ouvre. The topic of the poem (a dream) is usually noted to share generational affinities with Quevedo’s Dreams or Calderon’s Life is a Dream; yet it couldn’t be more different in content. Sor Juana’s real connection is the hermetic literature of the time, particularly the works of Kircher like Oedipus Aegypciacus, the Corpus Hermeticus, and particularly Iter Exstaticum. The topic of the poem is the journey of the soul during a dream, through which it tries to take possesion of all the knowledge of the world. The poem has been very briefly summarized as follows: “as it was night, I slept; I dreamed that I wanted to understand totally and instantly all things of which the universe is composed; I could not, not even divided into categories. Disppointed, at dawn, I awoke”.
Sor Juana’s poem is an utopia of knowledge that is crushed at the end. In a way it could be said that the awakening of her dream symbolizes the awakening of the mind to its own limitations, and some sort of vanquished recognition of a human situation. Such acknowledgement of the human condition places Sor Juana’s work in a modern tradition, as she accepts the fact that humans are not to understand all aspects of experience.

Yet, it is a statement of purpose, and what she describes in more than five hundred verses, is the journey of the desire of absolute knowledge. Sor Juana dreams in the possesion of that absolute system which, in a way, we all still dream of. What is most important is not, perhaps, the possibility to attain all knowledge ( and perhaps it is scary, as it is in the case of Borges’ Aleph), but to find the courage and motivation to embark in such a journey.
The utopia of knowledge has a degree of heroic tragedy when it is carried out. Most of those who embark in such tasks know that their outcome is uncertain, and at best it can only be mildly successful. But the goal is not the goal in itself, which we know is unattainable from the beginning, but the very belief in the goal.

It is this same utopia of knowledge that motivated people like Matteo Ricci and Giulio Camillo to build their respective structures of knowledge. It was also the motivating force of the enlightement, which searched to build a free and educated society on fair moral and social principles.

V. Illuminations: from the Encyclopedia to the Internet

The desire for ready access to information is surely a very ancient one, and the first attempt to store for human use something like universal knowledge in a single container goes back at least as far as the concept of the encyclopedia, initiated by Diderot during the 18th century.  The same intellectual impulse for a democratic spreading of knowledge to “the people” was also the origin of the museum as a public institution, as the royal palace was converted into a public space, the Louvre museum.

But since the scope of human knowledge broadened significantly in the wake of the Industrial Revolution during the 19th century in Europe, and continued to expand even more quickly as a result of the scientific and technological innovations of the 20th century, the idea of organizing all the world’s knowledge (or even a significant portion of it) became an enormous problem.
H.G. Wells is credited for developing the idea of the ‘World Brain”, a project which would esentially consist in the creation of “a new world organ for the collection, indexing, summarizing and release of knowledge…These innovators, who may be dreamers today, but who hope to become very active organizers tomorrow, project a unified, if not a centralized, world organ to “pull the mind of the world together,” which will be not so much a rival to the universities, as a supplementary and co-ordinating addition to their educational activities–on a planetary scale.” Wells suggestion was to have all the information stored on microfilm. Whereas this turned to be an impractical thing to do, his larger notion of a storage site for all knowledge eventually led to the conceptualization of the internet.
The Internet was never conceived as a searchable archive, much less a publishing tool for individuals, when it took shape in the 1970s with funding from the Department of Defense. Its growth in the 1980s, backed by the National Science Foundation, was largely in the universities, connecting them with the supercomputer sites that housed the world’s most powerful machines. But communications creates relationships; ideas cluster, flourish, and spawn new research. Soon academics were talking by electronic mail, then exchanging professional news through mailing lists. Taking the Net into the commercial arena was a development of the 1990s, but this third wave of expansion has transformed it from a specialist’s resource to a society-changing communications carrier. The Internet is a network of networks with no central organization which operates outside of national and physical boundaries. The growth of the Internet has been estimated at as high as 100% annually. In 1998 there were 50,000 hosts, and a year later the number had tripled. One research firm in London predicts 200 million Internet users worldwide by 2002. In 1995 more messages were sent electronically in the United States than through the postal system.

Yet, given its very recent invention, the problems of the internet as a system are barely starting to become clear. As an utopian system of free information, it has also promoted disinformation; while it promotes the myth of it being a repository of all things — as in the case of previous utopias of knowledge — its hosts actually control the quantity and extent of all kinds of information, securing that only a segment of references is available to a certain user.

VI. Borges’ Aleph

Around the same time that H.G. Wells was developing his theory for a world brain, Jorge Luis Borges wrote a story about a character who confronts such a thing with his humanity. In Borges’ “The Aleph”, the main character mourns the recent death of a platonic love, Beatriz Viterbo, the memory of whom he is determined to keep intact. Through interactions over the years with Carlos Argentino, one of Beatriz’s relatives, he seeks to persevere a symbolical thread of human contact with her memory. The odious character of Argentino, however, is a dull acquaintance and a failed poet who believes to be writing the ultimate poem about all the things in the world. Argentino writes with the aid of a magical site that he had found in the bottom of his house known as an “Aleph”, a point in the universe where all other points meet. Borges (the character) eventually encounters the Aleph, and is shaken by its overwhelming vision of the infinite, comprising also his most personal obsessions (as he sees the entire universe, he unfortunately discovers the infidelity of his Beatriz). Such omniscient experience results in a kind of dystopian vision, in a way in which he returns to accept the normal process of human oblivion, including his once precious loving memory of Beatriz.

Borges’ story, a true masterpiece, has a series of complex philosophical implications about our contradictory desires for preserving time and situations. In a similar way to his story “Funes el Memorioso”, about a man who can never forget anything, Borges alludes to the fact that omniscience is a human desire only because of its impossibility, but that its actual realization could be insufferable. In a similar way to Sor Juana’s “First Dream”, Borges’ story is about an distopia of knowledge, and a criticism on the notion that we, as humans, would want, or even need, to know everything.

Borges’ work provides valuable reflections when placed in a contemporary context. Not only does the Aleph prefigure the invention and drawbacks of the internet, but it also chillingly provides a comment on its dilemmas. As the character is overwhelmed by the totality of the Aleph, we are faced with the unmanageable task of processing the excess of information provided by the internet. Ultimately, we create inhuman means to understand the world with our human mind.
VII. The Return to the Center
For Western civilization, history is cumulative and linear, and therefore retrogression is seen always with suspicion.  Yet the present time seems awfully similar to the Renaissance, a time of discovery but at the same time of obscurity, whereas the great discoveries carry with themselves a cloud of obscure questionings.
If, as I had suggested, museums were born from the joint formula of artificially linking location and image, then they existed much earlier in a virtual or conceptual stage more than in a physical one. It could be argued that Ricci’s Palace of Memory, or Camillo’s Memory Theater, for instance, were museums of experience in a similar way to what the Holocaust museum in Washington is today.
Palaces and theaters of memory became outdated and useless notions after the Baroque era, when Wunderkammen were already in vogue, and as systems of printing were proliferating. Later on, they apparently remained lost in history for various centuries afterwards.  As the discoveries on the function of the brain developed in the Twentieth Century, the connectionist theories within cognitive sciences constitute perhaps the closest attempt to search for an actual architecture of memory within the brain, conformed by wired circuits of cells. Visualized configurations of the brain led to the development of artificial intelligence and the goal to simulate the processes of human thought through a digital software which resulted in computers. Yet with the digital revolution, programmers instinctively turned to early metaphors and memory archetypes in order to create a understandable interface between computer users and the electronic language. The question on how can we visualize that which is entirely imaginary reappeared. The internet is our collective palace/theater of memory, and today there is a proliferation of virtual museums all over the world. We have arrived at the place where we started: the artificial memory referred to in Ad Herennium, where we learn through a virtual structure and imaginary hierarchy of ideas.

Will the future be a reencounter of the real, as writers like Hal Foster suggest? Or will we encounter that we are currently living the beginning of a third category, which somehow is an amalgam of our current notions of the real and the virtual? At any rate, we live in the coordinates of time and space, and whereas we will be bound by those confines, we will need to utilize notions of memory repositories, whether physical or virtual, in order to make some sense of the course of our cultural development.


Frances A. Yates, The Art of Memory, The University of Chicago Press, 1966

Jonathan D. Spence, The Memory Palace of Matteo Ricci, 1995

Yates, Frances: The Rosicrucian Enlightenment, London, 1972.

H.G. Wells, World Brain: The Idea of a Permanent World Encyclopaedia.

Jorge Luis Borges.The Aleph.

Octavio Paz: SorJuana Ines de la Cruz or the Traps of Faith

Pliny, Naturalis Historiae, Book 7

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