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In conversation with: Louise Thompson, Health and Wellbeing Manager, Manchester Art Gallery

“I’m a bit of a health and wellbeing nerd and I’m in my dream job, so I just love exploring how we can make museums better places to work and visit by using the cultural resources available.”

Ahead of her presentation at the upcoming MuseumNext Health and Wellbeing Summit, Health and Wellbeing Manager Louise Thompson offers an insight into the relationship between culture, mindfulness and wellbeing – and introduces the theory of trauma-sensitive mindfulness. 

“I’ve been at Manchester Art Gallery for 14 years now and I worked across a number of different roles in those early days,” Louise Thompson says, when MuseumNext caught up with her in January 2022.

“I’ve always had a passion for arts and health, and the impact that art can have on wellbeing. So, when the opportunity arose to shadow the incumbent Health and Wellbeing Manager who was in role before me, I jumped at the chance.”

When that position eventually became vacant, I applied for the role and here I am 10 years later, still loving the challenge of developing health and wellbeing initiatives at the museum.

As Louise explains, Manchester Art Gallery was somewhat ahead of its time by having a health and wellbeing manager back as early as 2008 – at a time when there were few positions of this kind in the UK.

“Off the back of a project exploring art and mental health, the gallery’s board showed a lot of foresight, I think, in deciding that a more permanent resource should be dedicated to health and wellbeing. And, in fact, Manchester as a city has long had a strong arts and health practice within the cultural sector.

“I would say that health and wellbeing managers are more common now in cultural institutions than they were a decade ago. Certainly museums are placing more emphasis on mental health initiatives. But I do think that Manchester’s museums and galleries were probably ahead of their time and continue to lead in that regard.”

During her early years in role, Louise explains that she sought to deepen her understanding of mental health issues by volunteering on the secure ward at a local hospital, delivering art and creative workshops to patients.

“I really wanted to get as much experience as possible during my early career in working with people suffering from mental health problems and applying art and creativity as a treatment wherever possible.”

Asked if much has changed in the requirement of her own role over the past 10 years, Louise says,

“I wouldn’t say that the requirement has necessarily changed in that time. The job is very much about responding to the needs of the community, looking to provide support and developing programmes as required.

“What has changed dramatically over the course of the last decade is the public awareness of mental health issues and the crisis facing people both in the UK and around the world right now.

“The escalation of this crisis has required the cultural sector to respond. And, importantly, I think that museums and galleries are in a strong position to tackle those issues.”

Having established herself in her position at the Manchester Art Gallery, Louise also now works as a freelance consultant on projects for other institutions in the UK and Europe.

“I love working at Manchester Art Gallery but it’s also an exciting challenge to work with different museums, different collections and different communities, applying a variety of cultural resources to health and wellbeing initiatives.

“Each organisation approaches me in a similar way. They are curious about mindfulness; and they want to develop their confidence in using it. Typically, I begin by providing an introduction to mindfulness – what it is; how it can be explored; and how it might be integrated with collections.

“From there we might develop resources such as articles, workbooks, trails, challenges or videos. What makes it interesting for me is bringing all the different elements together and seeing how the collections, the spaces, the architecture or, for digital projects, the website can be utilised.”

Mindfulness for engagement

At the MuseumNext summit, Louise will share her expertise and some of the lessons she’s learned over her years working in museums. She believes that anyone interested in using mindfulness as a tool for engagement will find value in her talk.

Louise also says that there remains some nervousness among museum professionals when it comes to delving into the themes of health and wellbeing, particularly the associated risks of working with vulnerable people. Her presentation will touch on the steps that can be taken to mitigate those risks and explore safe practices.

“The core theme of my talk will be around trauma-sensitive mindfulness. It’s become clear in recent years that some forms of mindfulness teaching can be problematic for those who have had bad experiences in the past. And so I want to share some of the benefits of trauma-sensitive mindfulness when trying to safely embed practices within museums settings without the risk of triggering those who are vulnerable.

“Ultimately, I want to encourage people to look at how they can confidently incorporate mindfulness practice because museums and galleries really are brilliant places to deliver these programmes. The assets that we have at our disposal as a museum community are perfect for audiences that are in need of mental health support.”

Hear more from Louise and an exceptional range of other museum professionals at the Health and Wellbeing Summit running 31st January – 2nd February 2021. Find out more about the conference here.

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