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In conversation with: Sander Daams, Head of Education, Groninger Museum

How can museums support highly stressed and sometimes traumatised individuals to improve their mental health, reduce isolation and develop their skillset in the process? 

That’s the challenge that Sander Daams and the team at the Groninger Museum have taken on through their collaboration with the University Medical Center Groningen (UMCG). In his presentation with Dr Edwina Doting at the upcoming Health and Wellbeing Summit, Sander will explore the theory behind the project and why doctors and medical students (some of the most highly stressed and pressurised individuals of the last two years) were an obvious choice for this initiative.

Having assumed his role as Head of Education at the Groninger Museum at the start of the pandemic in 2020, Sander Daams found himself straight at the heart of one of the institution’s most important projects in collaboration with the UMCG. Having previously been an educator for both the Rijksmuseum and the Van Gogh Museum Amsterdam, he possesses a wealth of experience. Yet even for an established museum professional, the events of the pandemic have been highly unusual.

However, Sander is quick to point out that the challenges of Covid-19 actually served as the catalyst to make health and wellbeing initiatives a priority for the museum. He says,

“As an education team we were already working on projects that looked at the therapeutic role of art and the importance of cultural attractions for wellbeing before the pandemic hit. But in many ways, Covid encouraged us to quicken up some of the things we were doing a little bit.

“In particular, we saw that people – especially the doctors and medical students we wanted to appeal to at the UMCG – were experiencing burnout from the constant pressure on them. So, we needed to work faster and provide programmes that we thought could help people suffering from stress, anxiety or perhaps isolation.”

Sander suggests that even once the worst aspects of the pandemic are left behind, many of the hardships and challenges to mental health are likely to remain. This is simply because of the nature of the modern lifestyle. More specifically, he points to the concerns expressed by the medical students that he and his colleagues at the Groninger Museum have spoken to:

“It’s the young people, the students, that are often feeling overwhelmed. They live in small spaces during their studies; they feel pressure to do well in their degree course; they may be far away from their families. And this is one of the reasons why we wanted to see how engagement with art could have a positive impact on their state of mind.

“In many cases, students have also witnessed very harrowing situations within hospital settings for the first time. And this can actually leave them suffering from trauma. So, again, we hope that our programme can be used to support those who could benefit from art as a way to deal with traumatic experiences.”

Art in developing soft skills

In addition to the therapeutic aspects of art and culture in remedying mental health problems, Sander suggests that the Groninger Museum’s work with the UMCG, which he will explore in more detail at the MuseumNext Summit, is also designed to see if engagement with art can even help in the training of better doctors.

“Appreciating art means thinking creatively; listening and looking carefully; showing empathy; and much more. What we hope is that engagement with art can ultimately help to develop better doctors who are not just good at the science but are also good with people, have valuable soft skills and can problem solve when necessary.”

Similarly, Sander says that visiting museums as an academic group may demonstrate its own benefits in breaking down social barriers between student doctors and their fully-qualified counterparts.

“In speaking to a surgeon recently, she said that she saw a real benefit to doctors and student doctors engaging with art together. She felt that this kind of human experience as a group could bring the old and the young together, encouraging them to communicate more openly.

“She even felt that this could help to reduce stress in itself. By making senior doctors more approachable can help students to feel less anxious about asking questions or working alongside their fully-qualified superiors.”

Educating with health and wellbeing in mind

Ahead of his presentation at the MuseumNext Summit, Sander says that the time is right for museum professionals to come together and share best practice in health and wellbeing at a time when it is more relevant than ever before.

“As part of my role I think it is important that I have a keen interest in health and wellbeing because it goes hand in hand with the kind of educational projects that museums are responsible for. In ‘museum land’ we are familiar with programming that prioritises wellbeing, provides accessibility to minority or disability groups and looks to be inclusive and beneficial to all.”

“I think it is fantastic that MuseumNext has developed a summit that is dedicated to health and wellbeing. It’s something that many museums are working hard at and so this kind of event shines a light on what institutions are doing. It also gives us all a chance to think about what we are doing well and maybe what we could be trying in the future.

“I’m really looking forward to hearing what some of the other speakers have to say as I am passionate about areas such as supporting special needs groups, dementia programmes and accessibility initiatives from my time with the Van Gogh Museum and Rijksmuseum.”

Hear more from Sander Daams, Dr Edwina Doting 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.

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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