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Loneliness and Social Isolation – How Can Museums Help?

The issue of loneliness has been making headlines in recent years. More and more people are feeling isolated and alone. In fact, a recent study found that one in five Americans always or often feel lonely or socially isolated. Human beings are social creatures. Prolonged loneliness can have a host of negative effects. It has even been referred to as a silent killer. This is an issue which can affect anyone, at any age, although elderly people are sometimes more at risk.

Studies have shown that social isolation has a serious impact on physical health. One piece of research found that loneliness can cause a comparable amount of damage as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Social isolation affects mental health too. Loneliness can lead to an increased risk of depression. Lonely people have a 64% increased chance of developing clinical dementia. Making meaningful connections with other people is vital. Positive social interactions are a key part of health and wellbeing.

loneliness and museums

What have museums got to do with loneliness?

For many, a visit to a museum is a chance to get out of the house. It can lead to meeting new people and having more social interactions. Museums can interact with isolated people in a positive way. They are a safe space, where people from different backgrounds can have an opportunity to come together. There are many interesting museum projects tackling the issue of loneliness. These can take many different forms. For example, community programmes, volunteering opportunities or lifelong learning schemes.

Museums tackling loneliness through lifelong learning

Living in a remote or rural area can be a cause of loneliness and social isolation. It can be difficult to access services and to visit other people. One scheme in Cornwall, UK, looked at ways of tackling this. It worked with elderly people in the area on a series of creative projects. Cornwall is large county with many rural towns and villages. The Cornwall Museums Partnership wanted to support isolated older people in the community. Three museums took part in the 2016 project. They designed activities that would appeal to audiences over the age of 65.

The Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro built upon an existing exhibition. This was called A Story of Cornwall. The museum’s outreach team worked with a local care home. They took music and objects from the exhibition materials out to the residents. They held reminiscence sessions in the care home. The residents were recorded telling their own personal stories of Cornwall, to add to the exhibition.

The Telegraph Museum Porthcurno also conducted outreach sessions in a nearby care home. They worked within the topic of communication. The work included creative projects around the theme of sending and receiving messages. As part of the scheme, residents were able to visit the museum and see their artwork displayed. The museum also held a tea party for them as part of the trip, making them feel welcomed and valued.

Falmouth Art Gallery wanted to explore how it could use its collection to connect with the elderly. It worked with several groups including care homes and day centres. It asked people which pieces spoke to them best. It then used this information to create digital resources and outreach activities . The aim is to make these available for local groups in the area to use.

Research and community projects around loneliness

One partnership is conducting an interesting project on isolation and loneliness. It is doing this through the lens of a grand country house estate. Calke Abbey is a National Trust Property in Derbyshire. For this undertaking, it has partnered with the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG) at the University of Leicester. The project aims to develop a programme of activities at Calke Abbey. These will all focus around the topic of loneliness.

The timing of the scheme is significant. 2019 marks the 200th anniversary of the death of Henry Harper Crewe. He was the 7th Baronet of Calke Abbey and often called ‘The Isolated Baronet’ during his time. Loneliness is not only a modern problem. The Abbey wanted to come up with a series of ways to discuss the theme of loneliness and social isolation. The partnership is examining ways of exploring contemporary issues within an historical site.

This project has the potential to connect with the community and start conversations. It can also tackle some of the stigma surrounding the concept of loneliness. Many people find it hard to open up and say that they are lonely. It is important to start conversations about the topic. It can make people feel like they are safe to talk about it. The scheme prompts a “reflection on, and awareness of, contemporary questions of loneliness and social isolation.” It also intends to provide opportunities for staff and visitors to avoid loneliness.

Museum volunteering and social isolation

Volunteering schemes are an excellent way to combat loneliness. Museums are ideally placed to offer interesting and rewarding volunteer roles. From 2013 – 2016, two UK museums joined forces to establish a volunteering, training and placement programme. The project was called if: Volunteering for Wellbeing. It was delivered by the Imperial War Museum North and Manchester Museum. It covered ten heritage venues across Greater Manchester.

Recruitment for the scheme was targeted towards people who were facing social isolation. They also worked with people dealing with unemployment or low-level mental health challenges. 231 local people took part as volunteers over three years. Placements were located at a variety of institutions. These include Manchester City Galleries, Manchester Jewish Museum and the People’s History Museum. There were many positive outcomes. 75% of participants reporting a significant increase in wellbeing after one year.

Museum volunteers can take on a variety of different and interesting roles. They are not always the traditional front of house or visitor support. The Smithsonian uses a huge team of digital volunteers through its Transcription Centre. It recruits volunteers from all around the world. They work on group and individual projects, transcribing historical documents. These include field notes, diaries, ledgers, photo albums, manuscripts and biodiversity specimen labels. This work helps to make the museum’s collections more accessible. Effie Kapsalis is Chief of Content and Communications Strategy at the Smithsonian Archives. Although most of the work is online and remote, she says the volunteers have a real connection. “There is a sense of community amongst the volunteers through social media and the Transcription Center itself.” She says, “serving as a digital volunteer yields the same sense of purpose as our in-person volunteers.”

Removing Barriers to the Art World

One UK museum has been working to provide a platform for artists themselves who may be facing social isolation. Outside In was founded by the Pallant House Gallery, Chichester, in 2006. The aim of the project is to create a fairer and more inclusive art world.

Artists can face barriers to the art world for a number of reasons, including health, disability, social circumstance or isolation. This charity helps them to connect with others through art and culture, and gives them opportunities to display their work. They run artist support events throughout the year, as well as coordinating courses, training and exhibitions.

Museums on prescription

Social prescribing is a way of helping patients to improve their health and wellbeing. This is done by connecting them with community services. In the UK, this model is becoming more popular. For instance, GPs have been prescribing library visits as part of the Books on Prescription scheme since 2013. In 2017, Canterbury Christ Church University and University College London trialled a scheme called Museums on Prescription.

The project linked museums with health and social care professionals. The health workers were able to refer patients to museum-based activities. As part of the programme, twelve free 10-week museum sessions were created. These were aimed at lonely older adults over 65. Sessions were led by museum staff. They included talks, behind-the-scenes tours, museum object handling and creative activities. The project had a positive impact and won two public health awards.

This model is also being used in Canada. In 2018, Montreal-based medical association Médecins Francophones du Canada (MdFC) began handing out a different type prescription. These prescriptions allow patients to visit the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts for free. Referrals can be made for a variety of issues. These include depression and chronic pain. Conditions like these can prevent people from leaving the house and therefore lead to isolation. According to MdFC vice president Hélène Boyer, visiting a museum can increase feelings of wellbeing and boost serotonin levels.

volunteering in museums

Museums can help people to make a human connection

These examples show how museums can play a key part in tackling the problem of loneliness. Through arts and culture, people can learn new skills and interact with others. They also have an opportunity to make genuine human connections.

One volunteer who took part in the if: Volunteering for Wellbeing project explains just how much it has changed her life. Claire says she felt isolated and shut off, with few friends and no plan. The scheme gave her confidence in her own abilities and helped her to improve her people skills. She says that as a result of her volunteer role she “felt trusted and respected, and that I was making a difference to visitors.” Since the programme ended, Claire has found employment within the museum sector. She now enjoys being able to share her knowledge and assist other volunteers. After the project, almost 60% of the participants reported a sustained improvement in their wellbeing over 2-3 years. The volunteers were given training and were supported throughout the scheme. It is also important to note that they were placed in roles where they were genuinely useful and valued.

Museums can be the catalyst for people who want to break free of loneliness. Interacting with culture can boost health and wellbeing. Creating art, handling objects and learning new skills are all beneficial. But most of all, wellbeing is improved by doing these activities alongside others and feeling like a part of something.

Interested in learning more about Health & Wellbeing in Museums? Join us for the Museums, Health & Wellbeing Summit

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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