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How Museums can become spaces for care

Thanks to the modern news cycle and the drive for incessant clickbait, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the world constantly bounces from one crisis to the next. Indeed, the headlines of mainstream news outlets are rarely filled with positivity and warmth when a shocking story can be broken instead.

But it must be said that the last two years has been particularly rich in doom and gloom. Having lived through two years of a pandemic, many of us are feeling beaten down and somewhat exhausted by it all – even those of us who haven’t been required to show the kind of frontline heroism of doctors, nurses and other healthcare workers.

Yet, as we look ahead beyond the current health crisis, the economic turmoil and political chaos that seems to be rippling around the globe, it is clear that changes need to be made to right the ship; to lift us out of the malaise and give us all a sense of hope.

Certainly, there are no simple answers and no one source to the solution. But perhaps the museum community is better placed than most to contribute towards greater happiness, emotional resilience and an improvement in mental wellbeing.

Museums and mental health

In 2022 there are no shortage of museums with a proven track record in mental health initiatives – both directly and indirectly. In fact, the last decade has seen many projects and programmes launched, managed and measured for impact.

Whether it is via connection, activity, mindfulness, learning or philanthropy, institutions have employed many different techniques and methods to add value to the lives of those in need.

Working creatively with others in a new environment can help people connect with like-minded individuals and take a break from life’s stresses, while also getting out the house for an activity that offers a sense of purpose. Museums encourage us all to slow down and take notice of things, reflecting on items and situations from a different perspective, in a way that supports mindfulness and learning new information and skills. What’s more, from volunteering to workshops to charity initiatives, many museums provide platforms for philanthropy as a way to give back to the community.

Arts on Prescription – Heritage for Health is a clear example of museums’ role in our mental health. Established by Arts and Minds, the programme used art to support those living with depression and anxiety, in partnership with the University of Cambridge Museums. Participants attended weekly art classes led by artists and supported by counsellors, reporting improvements in their wellbeing and a decrease in depression and anxiety by the end.

The National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing

Arts on Prescription isn’t the only UK initiative to explore mental health in museum spaces. Established back in 2015, the National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing was founded in response to the growing awareness of the role museums and galleries can play in supporting health and wellbeing. Between 2015 and 2018, the Alliance worked with the All Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing to provide leadership and advocacy for the sector’s contribution to wellbeing, identifying both areas of best practice and gaps in knowledge and training.

Through a comprehensive literature review and online survey – detailing 603 museum projects from 261 different institutions – the Alliance published a report that “reflected a lively, innovative culture of health and wellbeing work, engaging diverse audiences imaginatively through a broad range of activities, both within the museum and beyond.”

Museums as an environment that cares

As the impact of museums on our wellbeing becomes more widely explored, many museums are taking the opportunity to place an increased emphasis on “care”.

This is particularly prominent among older adults, as the elderly are by far the largest audience for museums in terms of health and wellbeing projects. In fact, work with older people and people with dementia make up half of all projects reported by the National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing.

Museums around the world are providing services for older adults and those living with dementia. The Ben Uri Gallery, for instance, runs a programme of creative workshops called Creative Spaces, which introduce older adults to new skills and techniques based on their collections. Meanwhile, Brooklands Museum runs regular Dementia Cafes or reminiscence sessions based on object handling and structured visits, held within the museum walls.

The Birmingham Museums Trust, meanwhile, uses museum care programmes to focus on the anxiety and depression faced by those caring for dementia patients. A report from the Trust found that 87% of carers suffer from poor mental health, with 91% of these experiencing anxiety and depression, as well as social isolation.

The Creative Carers Programme offered by the Trust give carers a therapeutic space to create, with participants commenting that it “helps you escape for a bit – no one needs you or is making demands”. The benefits of this are numerous, with one participant commenting: “it is like pebbles in a pool – ripples benefit me and then benefit others I care for.”

Find out more about the health and wellbeing issues currently impacting museums at the upcoming Museums, Health and Wellbeing Summit, running 31st January – 2nd February 2022.

About the author – Tim Deakin

Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.

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