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How The Metropolitan Museum of Art Used Conversation to Reduce Social Isolation

Social isolation isn’t a new phenomenon. But it was certainly experienced more widely over the course of the Covid pandemic than at any other time in recent memory. The effect of repeated lockdowns meant social isolation became a new problem for many; yet it also shone a light on an invisible population that, for varied reasons, experienced social isolation even pre-pandemic.   

Can arts and culture hold the key to promoting greater social interaction?  Heidi Holder, Frederick P. and Sandra P. Rose Chair of Education at the Metropolitan Museum of Art believes museums can play an important role in reducing social isolation. In her recent presentation for MuseumNext, Heidi discussed how the Met in New York brought the museum into the homes of housebound adults. She also relays how this unique distribution network delivered a qualitative impact on health and wellbeing through the simple act of starting a conversation on art.

Your Met Art Box 

During the pandemic, the museum world was presented with the important question of how to transport a museum and make art responsive to people’s social and emotional needs.  The Met responded with the creation of a new home programme, Your Met Art Box.

Your Met Art Box is a partnership between the Met and Citymeals on Wheels – the largest food distribution programme in the United States for homebound adults. By developing a partnership with a distribution network for homebound adults, the Met was able to use existing content and send it into the homes of thousands of adults. The programme distributed a pack to homebound individuals once a month during the pandemic to create a multisensory experience linked to the curatorial work of the museum.

The beauty of working with Citymeals was very much in their pre-existing volunteer programme for visiting individuals.  Although these visits couldn’t take place one-to-one during the pandemic – they became phone calls – the conversational aspect of the calls worked well with the Your Met Art Box content.  Both volunteer and recipient could discuss art and the contents of each packet delivered by Your Met Art Box, taking in aspects for improvement where necessary.

This was a multi-departmental project taking in design, editorial, the access team, the curatorial team for content, the store and visitor services, who helped provide free visitor passes to all recipients of the box.

Art as therapy

At the Met, there is a recognition of the role that art and culture play in wider health. This is informed, in part, by the many worldwide studies on the levels to which art is connected to the promotion of better mental health and wellbeing. Programmes like Your Met Art Box represent a way of both helping to combat loneliness and a way of contributing to the research on art’s role in health and wellbeing. In this case, the programme was evaluated through the qualitative data it yielded, including letters and drawings talking about the impact on the life of the recipients.

The Met even held a conference series titled Healing Arts New York that brought together the practice of art and health alongside research and policy makers.  The goal was to help make art, wellbeing and health more naturally connected as part of international policy and embedded within frameworks outside of only museums.

By sharing the impact of the Your Met Art Box programme on recipients, it helps to quantify how this type of programme can be use as part of a social prescription. There are a number of social prescription programmes now around the world but it mainly refers to responding to physical or mental health issues with a social situation as a healing mechanism, rather than a pill.

Feedback from the programme’s participants highlighted just how invisible this population felt and how the pandemic really brought the issue of social isolation to the forefront of people’s understanding.

Interested in learning more about how museums are making a difference to the health and wellbeing of the communities that they serve? The Museums, Health & Wellbeing Summit is a two day virtual event that will bring together leading museum thinkers to share their ideas and experience. The conference will take place 6 – 7 February 2023, and can be watched live or on-demand after the event.

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