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How can Museums tackle the subject of addiction and help former addicts?

Addiction is a lot more common than people might realise. Over 20 million people in the United States over the age of 12 have some kind of addiction. Addiction causes a lot of problems for the individual. But it also places a huge burden on family, friends and relationships. The financial cost of some types of addiction is a big part of the issue as well. The National Institute on Drug Abuse in the US reports that substance abuse costs over $600 billion each year.

Although there is a lot of stigma around the topic of addiction, it is important to remember that it is an illness. People need help and understanding to enable them to break free of an addiction. There are many ways that museums can help with awareness of and action on addiction. Museum programmes can provide recovery programmes such as art therapy. They can also challenge stigma and help people to learn more about the subject of addiction.

addiction and museums

Exploring the subject of addiction through museums

There are several museums around the world focusing on the science of addiction. Educating the public about what addiction means is helpful. It can be a big step towards raising awareness and tackling stigma.

The Science Museum has a great deal of information on its website dedicated to the topic of genes. It explores the science behind who we are and why we behave the way we do. As part of this, the museum looks at the influence of genes on addiction. Scientists believe that this is an important factor. Some people may be more predisposed to addiction because of their genes. Different genes affect different aspects of a person. This includes their mood, how much alcohol they can tolerate, even how severe their withdrawal symptoms might be. The Science Museum reports that identifying factors like this can help in the development of new cures and treatments.

Science Museum London

Dopamine is a chemical found in the brain. It is often called the ‘pleasure-seeking’ chemical. Studies have found that some addicts have particular variant genes. These may have an effect on their dopamine levels. The Science Museum says, “These variants may predispose some people to addictive behaviour, but it does not mean that these people are destined to become alcoholics or heroin addicts – they still have control over what they do.” Genes may help scientists to understand a little more about addiction. There are many other factors too. Environmental triggers can lead to addiction. For example, being around addictive substances on a frequent basis. Personal circumstances such as poverty, unemployment or ill health can all matter too.

Addiction awareness programmes

Inside the National Addiction Awareness Complex in Pennsylvania, there is a unique museum. Through a variety of exhibitions, The Awareness Museum aims to give a comprehensive overview of the condition. It looks at the history, science, economics and culture of addiction.

The museum hosts 30 permanent exhibits. Visitors can learn about the history of addiction through a variety of mediums, including photos and films. These show how addiction affects not only the individual but also the people around them. Addiction has an impact on friends, family, colleagues and society as a whole. The museum also explores the economic and social costs of addiction. Exhibits show how different cultures around the world view addiction. The museum shows how modern society has become more understanding of the need to treat it as an illness.

Educating people on the realities of addiction is important. It could help to prevent them from experimenting with addictive substances themselves. Before its closure, the Hall of Health museum in Berkley, California ran a field-trip initiative with local schools. 823 students aged 10 – 14 completed surveys before and after their visit to the museum. The field-trips took in exhibitions that focused on the effects of a variety of drugs. The surveys showed a meaningful reduction in the students’ statements of intent. Survey questions asked about their intentions to use certain substances. This included alcohol, tobacco, diet pills, prescription drugs and illegal drugs. A paper on the programme concluded that it “may serve as a model for museums desirous of reversing the trend toward drug use by young people.”

Museums and Art Therapy

Art therapy can be a useful tool when it comes to working with people with addictions. Exploring art can help individuals explore their own emotions and issues. Art projects can provide a creative outlet and give them a chance to break a cycle of thoughts. Many museums have been running art therapy programmes. In fact, some medical professionals recommend a museum visit as part of a prescription. One such scheme is taking place at the Royal Ontario Museum in Canada. The museum is offering free admission to those with a medical referral. It provides a safe space for people to enjoy culture and the arts. It has a dedicated art therapy area, as well as a medical consultation room. These initiatives can complement traditional medical treatments. They provide an extra level of support for vulnerable people.

Art Therapy Classes at Museums

One art therapy scheme in the UK is specifically aimed at people in addiction recovery, as well as those in justice recovery. The Recovery RICH programme is run by Tyne and Wear Archive and Museums. The acronym stands for Recovering Identities through Culture and Heritage. It was developed with service users and professionals, with their needs in mind. TWAM works alongside organisations and individuals. The aim is to connect people with creative projects. These projects are designed to increase their confidence and feelings of wellbeing. Projects are varied, and take place in a variety of local museums and community venues. They can be inspired by different collections, museum objects or events. Some previous activities include jewellery making, oral history recording and exhibition curation. The museum works appropriate themes into these projects, helping participants to reflect on topics such as identity, recovery and aspiration. Participants also gain a supportive peer network as part of the scheme.

Museums supporting friends and family of people with addictions.

Addiction does not only affect the individual. It also has a huge impact on that person’s friends and family. Supporting someone with an addiction can be difficult and cause a great deal of emotional stress. Art therapy can also provide support for those close to a person struggling with addiction. For example, the Currier Museum of Art in New Hampshire runs a programme called The Art of Hope.

This scheme is intended to help families affected by addiction. The weekly sessions welcome people from the local community into a free, open and safe space. Participants can enjoy a respite from the stress of caring for someone with an addiction. They take part in guided conversations and creative activities. They enjoy free access to the museum’s collection as well as free refreshments. The atmosphere encourages peer support and the chance to connect with others in the same position.

The museum uses pieces from its collection that might speak to the experiences of being a carer. They might strike a chord in visitors who are feeling stressed, frightened, or overwhelmed. This can provide an opportunity to explore how they are feeling, as well as introducing some coping methods. New Hampshire has the third highest rate of drug overdoses in the US. Families are often deeply affected by the issue. Participants can be dealing with broken relationships and can also have extra caring duties. For example, many children can end up living with other family members when a parent is suffering from addiction.

Lynn Thomson is Assistant Director of Education and Community Engagement at the museum. She says that the programme offers a chance to have a break and reflect. “It was mostly just about slowing down and taking a few minutes to breathe. Folks are just constantly going — especially when you have the weight of such a heavy problem on your shoulders like substance abuse.” Thompson explains that art therapy can be a really useful tool to connect with this audience, “We are helping the community by offering them a place of respite and a sense of hope. Art is a powerful way to engage people in dialogue.”

Museums can provide valuable programmes around the topic of addiction

Addiction does not happen in a vacuum. It has wide-reaching causes and consequences. The strain of addiction affects individuals, but it also has an impact on their friends, families and communities as a whole. As well as the social impact, it has a huge financial impact too.

Addiction is an illness. To treat it effectively, people need to gain a greater understanding of the issue. Museums can educate people on topics such as the science behind addiction. They can also raise awareness of the subject. They can help to tackle some of the stigma associated with addiction and highlight some of the problems that people with an addiction may face.

Museums and galleries can provide dedicated programmes for individuals suffering from addiction. Schemes such as art therapy and community programmes have been beneficial. These programmes provide a safe space for people to explore their issues. They also give people the chance to break the cycle by connecting with a network of supportive organisations and feeling like a part of the wider community.

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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