Five Photos: A guide for helpers

We have created five exercises using photographs from our collection to encourage people to observe and reflect on them. You could help participants do these individually, or as part of a group. Each exercise should take about 15 to 30 minutes, depending upon the interest it provokes.

Download and print this guide (PDF, 0.1 MB)

All five exercises include:

  • A black and white image with caption, which you could download for printing or enlarge on a screen or laptop
  • A set of questions or prompts for discussion
  • A link to a pre-recorded interview to provide context, along with a transcript
  • A further ‘Did you know?’ prompt to inspire further thought
  • An audio version of the above for visually-impaired participants

The activity

  1. Choose your first image.
  2. Follow the question prompts. Encourage people to talk about what the photograph means to them. This could be an observation, or a personal memory. Perhaps people could share their reflection at the end with the wider group, if appropriate.
  3. Feel free to stop and pause during the questions or choose those questions that you feel will appeal. Don’t worry if people deviate from the task – the photographs are meant to be a starting point for discussion.
  4. Listen to the audio interview. Perhaps listening to someone else’s perspective makes people think differently about the photograph now? Could that inspire more discussion?
  5. Listen to the ‘Did you know?’ prompt if people are interested in finding out more.
  6. Think of a suitable way to end the activity. Perhaps participants could create a response to the photograph or memory provoked? This could be a poem, a song, a piece of artwork or a simple recipe. Perhaps participants feel interested enough in the photograph to explore further the culture of that country?

Making it multi-sensory and immersive

We’ve chosen photographs with different themes, such as markets, spices or music, and included audio descriptions of material to improve accessibility. Why not introduce different sensory experiences such as taste, smell and touch to make the experience more enjoyable?

Here are some suggestions for each photograph, or perhaps you could share your own ideas with us via our Outreach inbox?


If working with the Barbados market photograph (INF 10/39.19), could you provide examples of different fruits and vegetables that participants can touch, smell and taste?

  • How would you prepare or eat them if unknown? What does the smell remind people of? How would they taste? Then sample!
  • Check the links at the end of this page for suggestions on free online sound. You can search for international market sounds from all over the world, including Sri Lanka, Tokyo, Poland and Istanbul, as well as Yorkshire! This will help to reflect the life experience or cultural background of the participant/s and make the experience more immersive for everyone.
  • People could help to shell fresh peas or broad beans in their pods and reflect on past experience and the smell this evokes? Perhaps you could hide a variety of winter root vegetables under a tea towel on a tray? See if people can guess what foods they are touching – the more unusual, the better!


In the Nutmeg photograph (INF 10/379.10), the interviewee describes her memory of the spice fragrances in Grenada. Could you use different herbs and spices to encourage a trip down memory lane? They are easily available in supermarkets, or check the link below for smell boxes.

  • Which smells and fragrances do people remember most vividly from the past? Prompt memory using scented candles, plants, spices or lotions. Favourite herbs and spices include cinnamon, rosemary, peppermint, lavender and basil.
  • Could you take a trip into the garden or bring in a handful of fresh grass cuttings, pinecones, a few plant leaves or flower buds? Invite participants to feel their textures, smell any fragrance and see where it takes them?
  • What can people recall of favourite recipes or medicinal uses using herbs and spices as prompts. One example is nutmeg in rice pudding: cloves or ginger will have many different associations. Could you try making one of the recipes or remedies suggested?


For the Music Band photograph (INF 10/54.21), perhaps you could help people connect with their inner musician or remember favourite bands or songs from the past? Use the links provided for online sound apps or archival footage.

  • Help create a playlist based upon participants’ choices of favourite sounds or musical instrument, whether featured in the photograph or not. Some participants might want to sing along.
  • The instrument in the centre of the photograph is a tea chest bass. Search the internet and you can listen to how it sounded. Does anyone remember how these were made?
  • Could you compile a quiz based upon common and unusual musical instruments using a sound app or YouTube? Who can guess the instrument being played?


For the Racecourse photograph (INF 10/234.2), it would be good to capture the excitement of attending public or sporting events. Think about how people would travel there, what they might eat or drink, how they felt, what they would see and hear.

  • Listen to sound recordings of crowds or racing events – see the links below for suggestions of good online apps or YouTube. Try to encourage people to recall the sounds they associated with such events, whether football or cricket matches or other social events such as theatre trips or fairs.
  • Why not watch a recording from archival footage or online of a previous racing event? Maybe you could organise a pretend sweepstake?
  • Perhaps participants might wear a smart piece of clothing such as a hat, or describe what they would wear for such a day out? Could you prompt their memories with photographs of fashions from previous years? Keen artists might draw a favourite outfit from the past or select something from one of the magazine archives?


For the photograph of Ayr High Street (INF 9/1377.2), you might play sounds of trams, buses or other high street activity and build upon the stories that people recall. BBC Timeshift (see the link at the end) also has some great film footage on trams or other means of transport which could enhance and extend the activity.

  • Perhaps people might describe favourite shops, pubs or cafes where they used to meet friends? What music would be playing? What smells or noises do they associate with those places? Could you remake a favourite drink? Does it smell or taste differently now?
  • If people imagine re-visiting a shop, music venue or café of their choice, how would it look outside and in? Could you recreate a ‘shop counter’ with examples of packaging or crockery from the past? What would they order, how much would it cost? Maybe you use price tags in ‘old’ money? Charity shops are a good source for old tablecloths and crockery, and some companies and museums provide memory boxes with examples of previous branded items.
  • Perhaps people could recall favourite sayings or gestures of the shop owner or recount a funny story about a visit?

We hope you enjoy exploring this resource. Feel free to tell us how we can improve or shape similar activities.

Email us here

Useful Links

The National Archives’ Image Library offers a variety of images of designs, photographs, posters, advertisements and other records which you can search by theme.

Below are some organisations that offer additional resources, including sound and smell options. This is not a complete list. The National Archives is not responsible for content of these third-party sites:

  • The National Activity Providers Association (NAPA) offers ideas, links to useful websites, recipes and activity ideas as well as training and guidance
  • The BBC has a Reminiscence Archive that lets you search for audio, visual and photographic material under themes such as music, events, sport, childhood or people, or by decade
  • BBC Rewind offers a choice of theme tunes, social music, pop and classical music and includes a section on international music that would work well with some of the images
  • BBC Four Timeshift offers short clips and longer episodes on various themes which might provide more material to spark discussion. They have an excellent programme on the Golden Age of Trams if you are looking for soundscapes
  • Free Sound offers a wide variety of free sounds and music, including international background sounds which can help set a scene. You can search by country such as Botswana, or theme such as ‘markets’ ‘horse-racing’ or listen to nutmeg being grated!
  • Smell boxes are a growing commercial option but can be expensive. They may provide ideas though! Try this one or this one

Museums and Archives

Some museums, libraries and archive services offer dementia-friendly resources including handling collections or memory boxes. Check out what is available locally and online. Some might have copies of old photographs or offer old CDs and DVDs that can be borrowed, such as these.

Historical Packaging

  • Nestle offer a downloadable, printable pack including tin labels, posters and photographs such as items from a 1960s larder
  • Marks and Spencer have decade-based resource packs including leaflets, photographs and adverts to help support reminiscence activities
  • The Museum of Brands offers a variety of activities to support reminiscence including borrowing packs

Film footage

There are several film collections including regional archives that can help prompt discussion and reminiscence:


We would like to thank the following people for their help in contributing to and shaping this resource:

Audio and sound: Katurah Morrish, Jay Harris
Interviewees: Rephael, Virginia, Marcus, Liseby and Hannah
Interviewers: Michael Mahoney and Iqbal Singh
Alison Teader, Arts in Care Homes
Richard Neville, storyteller for ‘Stories from the Streets’
Staff and tenants of Catalyst Housing Ltd including Michael Moran, Birgit Hugh, Mary Wahome, Jaspal Singh and Donna-Lee Williams
Staff at Roehampton Library
Staff at The National Archives including Sara Griffiths, Matthew De Ville, James Chan, Emily Dutton, Angela Mullen, Clare Horrie, Rachel Hillman, Rosalind Morris and Andrew Payne

Download and print this guide (PDF, 0.1 MB)