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Museum Series Engages Art Lovers Who Have Alzheimer's

By Jane Durrell · October 30th, 2013 · Visual Art
alzheimersartwalk_jonmedina1Memories in the Museum - Photo: Jon Medina

On the first Wednesday of each month, a group of special visitors gathers in one of three participating Cincinnati museums for a tour designed expressly for them. The group includes people whose memories are fragile in the extreme and their guests, the family members or others who accompany them. Memories in the Museum is a new program developed in partnership with the Alzheimer’s Association of Greater Cincinnati (AAGC), the Cincinnati Art Museum (CAM), Contemporary Arts Center (CAC) and Taft Museum of Art. 

“We had all been thinking independently about doing something with the Alzheimer’s group,” says Jaime Thompson, CAC curator of education. “We realized we’d be stronger doing it together and started planning two years ago.”

The program began officially in September at the Cincinnati Art Museum, continued in October at the Taft Museum and will have its first gathering at the Contemporary Arts Center from 10 to 11:30 a.m. Wednesday, Nov. 6. “Identity and the Photographic Image” is the theme for the CAC event and will give participants the opportunity to take part in the program by learning photo transfer techniques.

Each museum is developing its own approach, Thompson says. “At the Taft, their technique is asking questions to bring people into a discussion. The CAM is doing a more holistic approach, incorporating sound and other sensations rather than exclusively visual. Our approach will be closer to the Museum of Modern Art’s Meet Me program.” 

The Meet Me program includes hands-on elements, which will also be part of the CAC presentations. “We hope to help people reach back in memory, and also to continue to foster motor skills, which fade with the disease,” Thompson says.

Emily Holtrop, CAM director of learning and interpretation, says the art museum welcomes the program because it expands their accessibility to another special group.

“We’re already working with the blind and people with hearing loss, so it’s a welcome addition. Memories in the Museum is really a great way for the museums to work together,” she says.

“Art is transformational, it takes us to an individual and comforting place and the ability to have those experiences is remarkable,” AAGC Executive Director Paula Kollstedt says of the program and the place of art in our lives. The Memories in the Museum program is an extension of ideas long fostered by AAGC and provides a shared experience for individuals that have the disease and their caretakers, usually family members. 

CityBeat joined the group for the Taft’s October program. The theme for the day was “People in Portraits.” Twenty-four people attended, more than expected, Taft Curator of Education Nancy Huth reported with pleasure. “We chose four experienced docents along with two staff members to conduct the tours,” she says. Working in pairs, they headed three individual groups to tour the hospitable rooms of the museum. 

The Music Room, the long, double fire-placed centerpiece of the house, was the first stop for the group we joined. Docents directed attention to particular works and asked questions of the group. “Arrogant,” said someone, about Frans Hals’ portrait of a self-assured man. “He’s the boss,” said someone else. People were engaged, responding. Thomas Gainsborough’s charming boys were mistaken for girls by someone, not the first time a modern viewer has drawn that conclusion, and someone else noted, “pastoral,” quite accurately. 

We moved into another group, looking at the Robert Duncanson portrait of Nicholas Longworth, once the owner of this house. There were understanding chuckles at Longworth’s note to himself pinned to one sleeve, his practice to keep from forgetting things. 

The mutual enjoyment of patients and their caretakers, usually family members, was apparent in all the groups. “One of the benefits of the program is that it teaches us the importance of the moment,” Kollstedt says. 

Also ahead is another visit to the Taft in December, when the annual Antique Christmas show with ornaments, toys and decorations from times gone by will be on view. Plans are in place for monthly programs at one or another of the museums through next August, with expectations that they will continue beyond then. Each program begins at 10 a.m. and concludes by 11:30 a.m., with refreshments following the tours. “We want to make it a social kind of occasion,” Thompson says.  

MEMORIES IN THE MUSEUM takes place the first Wednesday of every month. The series is free but reservations are required. Call 800-272-3900 to sign up for November’s event.



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