MAMGU'S (GRANDMA'S BOXES) COMMISSION
"I absolutely loved the boxes Katherine made to showcase Mamgu's things. For years I kept these things in drawers… I feel like I've finally organised her things but I'm also now enjoying them on a daily basis, just like she did."
Sian contacted me to talk about creating a memory box in memory of ‘Mamgu’, her grandmother. She had lots of little items left over from her house and wanted to display them in a meaningful way.
After a few emails back and forth, Sian came to my house with two cases of items! We looked through the objects together and decided on a focus for her memory box. Sian’s Mamgu was very glamorous and at one point we even discussed putting a pair of high heels into the box.
Before I started crafting the final pieces, I prepared a series of options for Sian to consider, with different sizes and price ranges.
Option one: One large box, which included all of the items.
Option two: Two boxes
Box 1 – Items from Mamgu’s kitchen, living room and hall
Box 2 – Objects from Mamgu’s bedroom.
Option three: Two boxes of equal size. This would include the handbag and photos from box 1.
Option four: Two boxes, but no handbag
We both agreed that option three worked best. When it came to displaying the items, two boxes of the same size offered more flexibility. Sian could display them separately, on top of each other, or side by side. We also had extra room for Mamgu’s handbag.
To house more of the objects, I also suggested using some items as a backdrop. For example, I could put the doilies behind the ducks, or the handkerchiefs behind the handbag. This allowed us to add more depth and interest to some of the compartments.
At this stage, we discussed the colour of the box too.
Once we’d decided on the format, Sian came over to my house to agree on the final layout of the items. There were a few objects that she wanted to be able to take out of the box. These included aprons (to smell), purse (to look through), photos (to flick through), handbag (to look through), talc bottles and perfume bottle (to smell), hairbrush and mirror set, jewellery (to wear), lipsticks and scarves (to wear).
Other items included in the box:
All of these items were so special and reminded her of Mamgu.
Once I’d laid out the final objects and roughly agreed the layout, I put in the dividers for both boxes. The next job was to fix all of the objects in the agreed places.
I checked in with Sian throughout the process. For example, I wanted to check that she was happy for me to trim the doilies and the handkerchiefs for the background of the compartments.
Once I’d added the final touches, Sian came to collect her memory boxes in person. She was delighted with finished pieces and wrote this beautiful testimonial:
"I absolutely loved the boxes Katherine made to showcase Mamgu's things. For years I kept these things in drawers - trawling through them whenever I needed a quick fix of Mamgu. They are things most people would see as worthless - chipped ornaments, old Rimmel lipsticks, plastic rollers and 1970s serviettes - but to me they meant the world.
Separately, I couldn't enjoy them (who'd display a single empty Babycham bottle?) but by putting them together, in the wonderful way Katherine has, they now provide the perfect snapshot of what she was and what she loved.
Instead of searching through drawers I can now conjure her by simply glancing at a wall. I feel like I've finally organised her things but I'm also now enjoying them on a daily basis, just like she did."
An unexpected surprise
After I’d completed Sian’s project, my memory boxes became something much bigger.
Sian wrote about her memory box on Twitter, and over 25,000 people engaged with the post. This gave me a unique insight into people’s reception of the memory box idea.
I was moved to see how the work affected people. It seemed to touch a generation of individuals who spoke about recognising their own mothers and grandmothers in the rose-patterned handkerchiefs, bottles of talcum powder, flying ducks and coin purses that were housed in the memory box.
After the reaction to the tweet, in May 2020, I was invited to speak on BBC Radio 4 about Mamgu’s Boxes alongside Sian Harries. We talked about what she had saved from her grandmother’s house, why they evoked such strong memories of her, and how I curated the two memory boxes.
BBC Radio 4 said:
How to avoid throwing out sentimental items after a loved one has died. Hanging on to items that no longer have any use is not always practical, but perhaps what was 'tat' could be made into beautiful art.
Object artist, Katherine Jones has done that, and a photograph of the everyday things which were owned by a Welsh grandmother has been getting a lot of love online. Now more people hope to turn their loved ones' possessions into a new type of treasure for their walls.