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Art Helps at the National Galleries of Scotland

Engaging with art is proven to have a positive impact on our general wellbeing. Spending time in a gallery or taking part in an engagement programme can take the stress out of our lives in a way that is rejuvenating to so many.   

Trying to pinpoint the ways in which art can promote wellbeing is complicated and can differ depending on circumstance, age and background.  In a recent presentation for MuseumNext, Head of Learning and Engagement at the National Galleries of Scotland, Siobhan McConnachie, reflected on the different ways that museums and galleries actively plan to incorporate different factors to improve wellbeing into exhibitions and programmes.

Sick Kids Play Programme

When looking at how art can help individuals to feel less stressed, Siobhan highlights the importance of bringing people together, providing a focus, offering something new to learn or just changing up the environment can all be beneficial. And these techniques all have something in common: they reflect the five factors to improve wellbeing promoted by health providers and charities. Specifically to give, take notice, learn, be active and connect with each other.

The National Galleries of Scotland run a partnership programme with the Edinburgh Children’s Hospital Charity. Through this affiliation they manage a play programme at the Royal Hospital for Sick Children, known locally as the “Sick Kids”.

To help fill in some of the resourcing gaps at the hospital, the National Galleries team created art trollies in key area of the hospital where children spend a long time. The trollies were full of art resources and received wonderful feedback from the children who enjoyed the distraction of the artistic entertainment.

The mindfulness aspect of taking notice of the artwork and being in the present was warmly received by the children receiving treatment. As a result of the positive feedback, this programme has now been expanded into the A&E of the hospital and even taken up by staff as part of a wellbeing session. Focusing on art and creativity has allowed teams within the hospital to reconnect with one another in what is a high-pressured environment.

Both staff, patients, visitors and the hospital environment very much benefitted from this kind of art-led activity. The resources helped to ease the tension of a busy waiting room, entertained siblings to free up time for parents, and even created distraction activities that allowed doctors to begin an examination without the patient feeling anxious.

Youth Programmes

Youth programmes by the National Galleries are delivered entirely by partnership organisations such as a school, employability charity or social work services.  The programmes are designed to fit into the structure of the partner organisation and work around any planned outcomes they have for young people to add value.

Beings was a youth project that ended up becoming an exhibition. It started with wanting to allow young people to be creative, make decisions and action them with the goal of helping boost self-esteem. It was a project full of creative freedom and expression where young people took artworks from the national collection and just allowed their imagination to run wild.  They created paintings, film, photography and drawings that all formed the basis of what became the final exhibition.

Feedback from teachers was very positive. One of the key outputs from the programme was that it had encouraged young people to freely discuss feelings and emotions when engaged in the project, in a way that hadn’t been witnessed previously. The project leaders were impressed by the way in which young people were able to communicate, express themselves and have fun as part of the artistic process. They also recognised that health and wellbeing didn’t need to be the focus of the project to still have a good outcome and benefits.

In summary, Siobhan suggests that working with the visual arts can have an incredibly positive impact on mental health and wellbeing that for young people. And it can be a way to unblock negative patterns of thinking and provide an outlet for emotions through creativity. The key to the success of such programmes, however, is very much working with partners to create an environment and structure that is trusted by the young people themselves.

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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