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What are Mindful Museums and how can they help us with our mental health?

Mindfulness is a bit of a buzzword recently. This is because there are many studies that say it has a positive impact on health and wellbeing. Mindfulness is the process of paying more attention to the present. By practising mindfulness techniques, a person can learn to slow their thoughts. It helps people to be calm and connect with the moment. It can be beneficial for mental health and help to ease stress. Mindfulness is a type of meditation. It involves sitting quietly and paying attention to thoughts, sounds and feelings. The mind will start to wander, but mindfulness is about acknowledging this and bringing it back to the moment.

Professor Mark Williams is the former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre. He says, “An important part of mindfulness is reconnecting with our bodies and the sensations they experience. This means waking up to the sights, sounds, smells and tastes of the present moment. That might be something as simple as the feel of a bannister as we walk upstairs. Another important part of mindfulness is an awareness of our thoughts and feelings as they happen moment to moment. It’s about allowing ourselves to see the present moment clearly. When we do that, it can positively change the way we see ourselves and our lives.”

Mindfulness in the museum

Mindfulness-Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) is good for mental health. Studies have found that it can be as effective at preventing the recurrence of depressive episodes as antidepressants. Mindfulness can also have a positive effect on physical health too. For example, many people use it as a technique to manage chronic pain.

How can museums, which are often focused on the past, help people learn to be more mindful and to live in the present? Cultural institutions and art galleries allow people time to reflect and to gather their thoughts. Museum visitors can find their place and connect with the present moment, in the context of people’s stories throughout history. Museums provide a safe space in which to explore new concepts.

A Mindful Museum

Manchester Art Gallery in the UK believes that mindfulness is important. It has been working to incorporate mindfulness into its learning programmes. The museum says that mindfulness is a valuable skill. It can help people to connect with and appreciate art, as well as to focus on their own mental health.

The museum has a wide range of projects targeted towards different audiences. These include school children, older people and mental health service users. It is of the opinion that wellbeing is a skill, one which needs time and care to cultivate. The museum has a varied programme of workshops and projects. These help people to learn the basics of mindfulness through the art collection. Participants are then able to take this skill away and practise it in everyday life.

Manchester Art Gallery also runs drop-in lunchtime mindfulness sessions. These are for working people in the city who may be in need of a break and a chance to reset. The museum says that these sessions, “have provided city-workers with important nourishment as well as respite from the noise and over-stimulation of the modern world. This gives them a moment away from the many pressures of their working environments. Mindfulness can be used as a preventative measure, protecting and strengthening people’s mental health by helping them learn skills to manage stress better and thereby lowering the risk of developing a mental health problem.” The museum’s public health and wellbeing programme has incorporated mindfulness as a central tenet. The theme of mindfulness runs throughout its learning activities.

Mindfulness Mondays

Another UK museum is offering mindfulness-based learning activities. In this case, they are for children and young people. Canterbury Museums and Galleries run class visits for children aged 5 to 14. School groups are invited to take a mindful journey around the museum. These Mindfulness Monday sessions fit with several elements of the UK school curriculum. These include Literacy, Art, History, Geography, PSHE: Health and Well-being and British Values.

Pupils taking part in the sessions are given the time to take in their surroundings. They will look slowly at pieces from the collection. The sessions encourage them to have their own reactions to the artwork. As part of the visit, pupils learn some breathing and focusing exercises. These help them to slow down and experience the museum in a new way. They are also given a chance to discuss the art with each other after the tour. Children of all ages can enjoy the benefits of mindfulness. It teaches them to connect with the world around them and value each moment.

Community mindfulness for all

Many museums are taking a drop-in approach to mindfulness sessions. They are making activities available and accessible to their communities. One example is the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania. The museum runs regular drop-in sessions under the title ‘Mindfulness at the Museum’.

These sessions are free and open to all. A series of skilled holistic practitioners guide participants through some basic meditation methods. Each teacher runs the sessions in their own way. They all help visitors to take the time to unwind and connect with themselves and with the moment. Sessions encourage participants to notice the environment around them. For instance, the different lights, sounds and textures in the museum. Visitors have time to unwind and to reflect on the artwork. The sessions can also involve breathing techniques, gentle stretching, and awareness exercises.

The museum says these sessions are “focused on helping our wider community—inside and outside of the museum—to have access to tools to become more aware. Mindfulness meditation can help us to develop healthier minds and bodies, reduce stress, foster compassion, and increase our memory skills, among many other studied benefits. Participants may discover that this appreciation of the “here and now” extends outside the museum.”

The Wexler Centre for the Arts in Ohio runs a similar scheme, called ‘On Pause’. This drop-in session invites visitors to observe art while focusing on the moment with the power of meditation. The guided sessions begin with a discussion on meditation. Participants receive instruction by trained staff from Replenish: The Spa Co-op in Columbus. The sessions also give people a chance to connect with other members of the community.

Mental Health & the Museum

Mindfulness can take many different forms. Some people may struggle with traditional styles of meditation. It can be difficult to achieve quietness or stillness in a busy world. People with anxiety or intrusive thoughts may find this challenging. But there is no right or wrong way to practice mindfulness. In fact, many people find more active forms of mindfulness useful. Some examples could be gentle exercises such as swimming, yoga or jogging. Creative pursuits such as painting and colouring can also be mindfulness activities. Repetitive, soothing activities like this are a great way to slow down and reflect. The key is to choose something that your mind can almost do on auto-pilot. This allows you to focus on enjoying the sensations of that activity.

St Mungo's Museum

The St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art in Glasgow teamed up with mental health charity Lifelink in 2017. Together they offered a series of mindfulness sessions in the museum. The free sessions took place once a month. They gave participants the opportunity to learn some relaxation and mindfulness techniques. In the safe space of a museum setting, visitors took part in some simple craft exercises based around the museum’s collection. The relaxing activities allowed people to have an introduction to mindfulness through arts and crafts.

Yoga in Museums

Practising yoga is a great way to be more mindful. This gentle exercise teaches people to focus on the movement of the body. This can help people slow down and appreciate the moment. Focusing purely on breathing and stretching can stop people feeling overwhelmed by thoughts.

Yoga class in the museum

There are many museums exploring the link between yoga, mindfulness and culture. One example is the Brooklyn Museum which offers yoga classes inside the museum. ‘The Art & Yoga’ class takes place monthly at the museum with a variety of different partners. It offers participants a session led by experienced yoga teachers. The museum believes the atmosphere here enhances the experience of yoga. The classes create a contemplative experience. Alicia Boone is the Brooklyn Museum Adult Programs Manager. She says, “We provide intentional programs to make a deep and meaningful connection to works of art. By joining us at the Museum for this restorative program, you can connect back to yourself and your spirit in a beautiful, non-traditional space.”

Yoga, Art and Mindfulness

Another New York institution has been getting involved with yoga in the museum. The Rubin Museum of Art explores the connection between yoga and art. It previously ran ‘Yoga Connection’ sessions. In these workshops, visitors had a chance to reflect on and discuss selected pieces. They were led by a yoga teacher and a museum docent. The museum says, “Yoga is a system of philosophy and practice that seeks to help people align their body and mind in order to transform their experience. Like yoga, the art objects in the Rubin Museum collection, intended for ritual purposes as well as aesthetic ones, seek to link the worldly and the transcendent. Using a piece of art allows for participants to internalize the discussed concepts. For instance, by making a connection through a breathing exercise and art, participants are able to make connections between yoga and the traditions expressed in Himalayan art.” The Rubin Museum also hosts a range of yoga, mindfulness and meditation sessions.

Mindfulness, Meditation and the Museum

Museums provide an accessible space for people to explore the concept of mindfulness. There is no right or wrong way to practice mindfulness. Museums can help people to discover a method that works for them. This could be yoga, meditation, group sessions or even light art and craft activities. Museums often have a unique space and atmosphere that many people associate with a sense of calm and contemplation. Although the benefits of mindfulness are well reported, some people may anxious about where to start. Museums are ideally placed to be a safe space for people to begin their mindfulness journey.

About the author – Charlotte Coates

Charlotte Coates is a Brighton based writer working extensively in the arts and cultural spaces. Charlotte has explored a wide range of museum related subjects since she started writing for MuseumNext in early 2019.

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