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Posted by on Feb 17, 2013

Designing spaces for memory and (e)learning: Westminster Abbey

Henry V and Shakespeare and the schematic of Westminster Abbey.

Henry V and Shakespeare and the schematic of Westminster Abbey.

I have this tendency to try and slam anything I see into some larger design/learning ethos and this post is no exception. The connections drawn here will be fragile, occasionally nonsensical, and presumably completely unworkable. But the search for metaphor and its application to designed spaces continues. And eventually someone is able to put it all together. Anywho, the other day my wife and I wandered around Westminster Abbey and marveled at its scope of history and national memory. It is a place of national consciousness and its thousands of nooks and crannies, abbeys and crypts provide a narrative of a story of a people. It is narrow and cramped in spaces, dramatically expansive in others. At times it is ‘messy’ and measured simultaneously. Things here and there, strewn about, with equal parts awe and mystery. More than all of this, it is a collection, a curated (in the most organic sense of the word) cabinet of curiosities on a grand scale. And Jeremy Irons does the audio tour. Your move, every other museum in the world.

It is an almost perfect metaphoric space for memory and the how mind ‘collects’ and curates. The endless plaques and crypts, tombs thrust on one another all battle for one’s attention. Depending on the light or the cold or the shuffling of feet, different alignments take place, different perspectives. Jeremy Irons himself pointed one out, how in the Poets’ Corner, the statue of Shakespeare looks down on the two greatest Shakespearian actors of their respective times, David Garrick and Laurence Olivier. The progenitor and the progenies, all within sight of Geoffrey Chaucer, the father of them all. One stands in one spot and these all align naturally. In another and the perspective shifts and other connections are drawn. These are broad examples of people. But our minds do this with ideas, concepts, and content regularly. Juxtaposing Shakespeare to T.S. Eliot or W.H. Auden, slamming modernity with Elizabethan glory. Glancing towards the tomb of Elizabeth all while standing on Darwin’s plaque. There is no connection there apparent; the mind will manufacture one to remember them both. This is memory itself. We link one object to another, regardless of their similarities or mutual characteristics.

“There is no memory without remembering” (source)

So the process of national memory as born out in Westminster Abbey is assisted in the spatial irregularities of the place itself. Tight corners here, broad spaces there. Some piled on one another, some with the grandeur and glory they thought their due. A king in earshot of a toll collector (Chaucer again), royalty with scientists, posts with diplomats. Ideas circling and meshing, all under the watch of that elaborate canopy. So the place itself evokes the past, encourages connections of this sort, enthuses new juxtapositions and learning. We learn who we are and then remind ourselves who we are through novel connections, all made possible by this seemingly haphazard structure. Unlike many museums (Westminster Abbey is a fully functional church, so please forgive this museum tag), nothing is sequestered there. Everything is spilling out into everything else. This is a living, breathing space. And it offers some interesting considerations for designing elearning spaces.

Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey. Poets’ Corner, Westminster Abbey. Copyright lapsed. Taken from VictorianWeb which gives explicit permission.

Sequestering scaffolds and sequestering stunts

The biggest takeaway from this clumsy attempt at making Westminster a learning space is this: objects are discrete and objects are assembled into meaning. So each statue has meaning in and of itself. They can be read and digested and researcher further with little to no connection to the larger environment at work in Westminster. Yet, they stand in the open and beg to be assembled into larger chunks of meaning and memory. This assembly is the language of visual design and Westminster has it in spades.

Designing for elearning generally sequesters for the sake of clarity and immediate learning objective. We do this especially with introductory learning where concepts of importance need to be foregrounded and not muddled. We scaffold our way to more complexity. However, elearning design also tends to do this with complex learning or discussion. This is often the limitation of the LMS or learning technology being employed. It doesn’t organically expand with the changing needs or intellectual pursuits. I suppose I might refer to this as responsive design if I were being more ed-techy. But even with complex design, there is still structure, however amoebic and fluid. So, the nooks and crannies of the Abbey’s space lends itself to broader learning and novel connections. By putting the objects of observation directly in our view and in our immediate consciousness, the space begs for connections and assemblies. If one stares at the tomb of Elizabeth long enough, it begins to recede into the background. That isn’t because it ceased to be interesting; rather, it has been assigned space, connected with other memories, and made available for reuse. It is an artifact for later learning.

So I caution against sequestering, but I do look for loose, chaotic structure in my elearning design. Some place with some nooks and crannies, with some space to spill out on the proverbial floor the tools of my learning. This is how PLEs are designed, I think. Responsive spaces, but jammed with meaning both real and imagined. We want to build and assemble these things into meaning. So design elearning and mlearning accordingly. Give it space and give it a pliable structure, simultaneously. Completely open and completely closed often produce the same result. Nothing.

Design the mind into your learning spaces

And by that I mean design the flow and structure of the mind into your learning spaces. Challenge memory with juxtaposition (seemingly incongruous juxtaposition), challenge understanding with contradiction. Provide space where a vantage point is changed often (not unlike the Shakespeare to Garrick and Olivier vantage point, which obviously privileges Shakespeare-we never exceed our parents, this positioning might suggest). Provide spaces for those sorts of confrontations, contradictions  and juxtapositions. This doesn’t always have to be dramatic redesigning of content and processes. Merely flipping a view from left to right, from up to down, from black to white. Shades of difference with significant learning impact.

The mind (at least mine) works in assemblies. Westminster Abbey begs to be assembled based on the people, the light, the structure, the mood. In shifts with each passing hour. Have elearners assemble, reflect, evolve, and synthesize. Construct montages of an intellectual vantage point, challenge inclusions and exclusions. Broaden discovery through these assemblies. One of my montages is below. Each image is a reflection of some adage or idea or theory that resonated and structures my view. As a learner, I look to be challenged on including any or all of those.


Westminster Abbey is not inclusive, but nor is it overwhelmingly exclusive. It is merely curated according to national memory and importance. Some of these individuals have stood the test of time; some require a Wikipedia lookup. Yet it is a visible process of curation and this curation can be enacted in online learning spaces through a considerate design. Provide spaces for remixing, montaging, reflecting, curating. Provide some space to take it all in.

Space for me to wander and wonder

The beauty of Westminster Abbey (or at least one of the beauties) is the nature of the engagement the average vistor has to the place. Everyone is given audio guides and everyone is unified through Jeremy Irons (all hail Jeremy Irons). From there, however, it is designed as an exercise in flânerie. Wander here and there and take it in as you please. Use the audio guide when you want to learn more or not, depending on your level of interest. Make meaning for yourself. Pick a vantage point and construct something from it.

It struck me that one could pick any number of pivots in which to engage the place itself. Architecturally, spiritually, historically, romantically, etc. All were available to use as a gaze in which to construct further meaning. Elearning spaces can be this as well. The Internet itself is. A thousand points of entry and exit depending on want and need. But I suspect design should be more than merely utility (although one should always have utility). There should be a sense of grandeur in the arrangement of space. It is the mystical glue that holds the entire structure together. So I wouldn’t hesitate to construct some presentative flair into my designed spaces. Let learners marvel at the space and the content and community within the space. We have always done this with our learning tools or spaces like illuminated manuscripts. These aren’t merely functional texts (vehicles of information). They are poems of praise to the mystical glue , the fluid spaces of awe and wonder. Wikipedia is this to some degree. It is our collective memory and it can awe with its assembly of text and media. It awes me daily with its breadth and capacity for self-directed learning. Yet, I want more. I want to be inspired by my spaces online. Thanks, Westminster Abbey for providing a model for how I might do that.

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