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Best practice in health education in Museums

Educating the population about health issues is an important part of keeping people healthy and well. Health education encompasses physical, mental, social and emotional health. When people have key information available to them, they are able to make informed decisions. A healthy and happy population has a whole host of socio-economic benefits.

Museums provide trusted information to the public. There is a lot of scope for museums to contribute to public health education. For example, they can hold exhibitions on physical health and look in depth at the human body. They can also help people to understand more about mental health. This can include a variety of formats including displays, workshops and group projects.

Putting Health and Medicine in Context

Medical museums offer visitors an insight into the history and development of medicine. There are many world-class collections available, focusing on many different aspects of medicine. For example, London is home to a wide range of health and medicine museums, from Alexander Fleming’s laboratory to the BDA Dental Museum. Visiting one of these institutions can help to place modern attitudes around health and the body in a historical context. They show how our approach to health and wellbeing has changed throughout the ages. Medical museums show how science and medicine are constantly evolving. London’s medical museums have collections that cover a huge range of topics. For example, mental health & psychiatry, the healing powers of plants and the history of optometry.

Medical Museum

The Mutter Museum in Philadelphia holds a large medical collection. Visitors can see anatomical specimens, models, and medical instruments. The museum uses this to educate the public about what goes on behind the scenes of the human body. It also catalogues the history of disease diagnosis and treatment. Objects on display in the museum include a collection of human skulls, Einstein’s brain, and the tallest skeleton on display in North America. Like many other medical museums, the Mutter Museum runs an educational programme aimed at schools. This introduces young people to the history and culture of medical studies.

Examining Mental Health in the Museum

One medical museum in the US focuses on mental health. The Glore Psychiatric Museum in St Joseph, Missouri, chronicles the history of mental health treatment. It aims to raise awareness of the importance of mental health through its collection. The museum holds over 10,000 items. These depict what the treatment of mental health conditions looked like in the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries.

This museum shows how the understanding and treatment of mental health has changed. Objects on display include surgical tools, treatment equipment, furnishings and personal notes. There is also a large collection of artworks. These were created by psychiatric patients and include paintings, drawings and pottery. Museums such as this help to establish a conversation about mental health and how we view it as a society.

Museums and the Human Experience

The Deutsches Hygiene Museum in Dresden, Germany, aims to open a dialogue about the body. The permanent collection looks at health topics through the lens of popular science. Through a series of exhibitions and interactive displays, visitors learn more about the human body and how it works.

A permanent collection called ‘The Human Adventure’ explores the human body. It also looks at concepts such as the self, thoughts and feelings. It features historical medical objects alongside hands-on displays and thought-provoking media. As well as this, the museum is home to a children’s display all about the body called “Our Five Senses”. This begins to explain to younger visitors how the body and brain work. It does this through interactive displays and learning experiences. The museum also holds temporary exhibitions. These are designed to spark conversations about health and wellbeing. Previous exhibits have covered a wide range of topics such as shame, AIDS, passion and sports medicine. The museum was created in 1912 to communicate information about health to the general public. It has since developed into a wide collection concerned with all aspects of what it means to be human.

Exploring our Anatomy

The National Museum of Health and Medicine in Maryland hosts an annual event focusing on anatomy. The Anatomy of Sports programme aims to educate the public on the inner workings of the human body. It does this by pairing sportspeople with medical illustrators.

The event helps young people to understand how muscles work. It also focuses on the importance of looking after their own physical health. Many different people take part in the event, from athletes and veterans to physical therapists and nutrition experts. Kellyn Hoffman is a member of the DC Roller Girls and she took part in the 2015 event. “We’re involved in a full-contact sport, so wearing a helmet, knee and elbow pads is crucial,” she said. “Explaining how we use our leg and core muscles, as well as the overall importance of physical safety, to kids will help them prevent injuries when they play sports.”

Local physical therapist Calvin Baxter used to play high school football. He agreed that the event is a useful way of sharing information with a young audience, “I treat all kinds of injuries. It’s very important to take care of your muscles, make sure your balance is good and to get screened if you feel that something is different,” he said. “It’s also important that your body gets adequate rest. People who play sports or work out without a break, they’re the ones who run the risk of increased injuries.”

Students from the University of Maryland’s Department of Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation also take part in the annual event. Doctor Vincent Conroy from the University believes it has a great educational value. “It’s important for [students] to see what the body looks like on the inside. That will only help them better understand the extent of someone’s injury,” Conroy said. “This kind of interaction is phenomenal. The athletes and illustrators here today offer a lot of knowledge and expertise to a group like this.”

Museums Encouraging Healthier Choices

Merseyside Maritime Museum in the UK runs a day of structured activities for school classes called RUSH. It is aimed towards 13 to 14-year-olds and deals with the topic of drugs and drug taking. Trained staff from the museum’s ‘Seized!’ collection lead the sessions. ‘Seized!’ is a part of the Border Force National Museum.

During the session, pupils learn about the effects that drugs can have on the body. They also look at the consequences of drug misuse. Discussions and hands-on learning experiences encourage critical thinking. The workshop begins with a theatre piece. This follows a fifteen year old girl, her family, and her experiences with drug use. After, pupils discuss the events in the play. They look at what the characters may have been thinking and why they made the choices they did. Themes in the discussion centre around addiction and drug use in the context of relationships, peer pressure and family.

Pupils explore health related issues

Pupils then take part in a series of workshops using the museums handling collection. They learn what drugs look like and are taught about the consequences of drug use. This includes information about alcohol and tobacco, as well as illegal drugs. During a tour of the gallery, they discuss issues around the effects of drug use on society and the individual. The session aims to help them to make informed choices when it comes to drug taking.

Workshops for Young People

There are many other museums around the world hosting educational programmes for children. Class visits can be an opportunity for pupils to explore topics connected to health and wellbeing. They can also help them to connect this to their own personal development and lifestyle choices. Worcester Medical Museums in the UK are home to a host of interesting school workshops. These take place in the George Marshall Medical Museum and the Infirmary Museum. The programme runs in partnership with the Charles Hastings Education Centre and the University of Worcester.

Workshops available include sessions on the human body, how it works, and what it means to be healthy. Younger pupils can explore topics such as diet, exercise and the senses. There are sessions that focus on key parts of medical history. For example, the plague, Victorian surgery and medicine in war. For older students, there are sessions which challenge perceptions of mental health. There are also educational workshops dealing with sexual health.

Museums Helping People to be Healthier and Happier

Museums are already running a variety of programmes dedicated to health and wellbeing. These range from projects tackling social isolation, to sessions helping people to stay active later in life. Museums are a key part of the communities that they serve and can help those communities be happier and healthier. Many museums work with groups of people who have specific health needs. For example, people with mental health issues or visually impaired visitors. However, it’s important that they talk to the general public about health too. Health and sickness are universal experiences. Museums can use art, heritage and culture to help people put this into context and learn more about themselves. Programmes that educate people about health issues can lead to them making healthier choices. This, in turn, can lead to a healthier, and happier, society.

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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