How are cultural institutions able to make visitors feel better about themselves?
The benefits of visiting a museum or gallery, be it in person or online, go far beyond simply providing knowledge. Museums and other cultural venues have the capability to provide a feeling of value and self-worth to their visitors, helping them to develop skills, seek refuge, find inspiration and more.
As our understanding of health and wellbeing issues develops and the global mental health crisis grows, museums’ role in countering and combating issues such as self-doubt and anxiety will only become more essential.
So, how can museums lean into this challenge and continue to enrich the lives of those who are experiencing mental health concerns.
Providing confidence for young people
Teenagers and adolescents are among the most vulnerable groups when it comes to self-confidence. Many of us can remember the uncertainty and constant self-awareness that comes with growing up, and the challenging search for identity. And while this is something almost all young people will go through, museums should look at how they can actively engage with this young audience and play a part in building adolescent confidence.
By helping teens develop their self-confidence, museums, galleries, science centres and other cultural institutions can create a loyal audience for the future. This is particularly important when we consider that those who visit museums regularly as children and teens are significantly more likely to return as adults with their own family.
Skills for Adolescents is a joint program of Lions Club International and Quest International that has successfully adopted this approach. Through the analogy of a three-legged stool, the initiative tackles a lack of confidence in teenagers by utilising the museum space. Each leg represents a different aspect of confidence-building: skills and talents; appreciation; and responsibility. By improving the skills, knowledge and cultural understanding of young people, museums can provide key aspects of themselves that they can be proud of.
Can museums help people experiencing mental distress?
Teenagers aren’t the only ones to have benefitted from museum spaces, however. Adults can also experience dips in confidence, especially where mental health concerns are involved, and museums and galleries can offer respite and support.
A partnership of four museums and galleries in North Wales recently developed a project with this in mind, delivering museum art sessions for people living with mental health disorders. The incentive was part of a larger study which asked the question: Can creative engagement in museums improve the mental health and wellbeing of people experiencing mental distress?
The study found that creative activity within museums could offer significant benefits in terms of mental wellbeing, and even the museum setting itself was found to be a beneficial factor.
Studies have taken place to explore whether museums make us happier
Museums can provide a peaceful and safe environment for people looking to both gather perspective on the world around them, and temporarily escape it. One review published by University College London Hospital explored the various ways museums can create a soothing and enriching environment for both staff and visitors.
The review explored and collated findings from hundreds of museum reports, projects and publications, with the ultimate aim of finding out whether museums really can make us happier.
In the “starting and impressive” findings, museums were concluded to be able to benefit health and wellbeing in a variety of ways. These included:
- Providing learning opportunities and chances to develop new skills
- Encouraging positive emotions like enjoyment, hope and optimism
- Calming and decreasing anxiety levels
- Providing a sense of community
- Increasing self-esteem and sense of self
- Providing new experiences which can be both inspirational and meaningful
- Offering opportunities for finding meaning
- Creating spaces for communication between families, carers and health professionals
Giving back to the community
The old mantra that ‘when we do good, we feel good’ is highly applicable to museums and galleries. Museums provide people with the opportunity to give back through local campaigns, community efforts and fundraisers. This, in turn, can help to boost people’s own mental health and wellbeing, and ultimately their self-confidence. The Mental Health Foundation have acknowledged this through their publication Doing Good Does You Good, which focuses on the mental health benefits of being altruistic.
The Iziko South African Museum provides a fantastic example of a venue showcasing its charitable nature. The museum offers a wide range of learning experiences for visitors, covering natural history, art and social history. The team also provide outreach programmes for diverse school groups, and a mobile exhibition that brings the museum to those who would otherwise struggle to visit.
These kinds of steps help to make museum visitors feel valued and appreciated, while the museum staff themselves gain a sense of worth from the process of reaching out to others and sharing experiences with them.
The MuseumNext Museums, Health & Wellbeing Summit will be held from 31st January to 2nd February, and will feature inspiring ideas and case studies from those championing health and wellbeing in museums. Click here to book your tickets now, to make sure you don’t miss out.
About the author – Tim Deakin
Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.