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Museums Joining the Mental Health Conversation

Mental health issues will affect one in four people worldwide, at some point in their lives. People all over the world are living with conditions such as depression and anxiety. There can be a lot of stigma and negative stereotyping around the topic of mental health problems. It is a wide-ranging term that can cover many different conditions. For example, bipolar disorder, anxiety and panic attacks, schizophrenia, PTSD, OCD and more. People who are living with mental health issues can face discrimination. They can also find some aspects of life more difficult.

According to the National Alliance on Mental Illness (NAMI) many people in America are affected by mental health conditions. Around one in five adults in the US experiences mental illness in a given year. This is approximately 43.8 million people, or 18.5% of the population. One in 25 adults in the US experiences a serious mental illness in a year. This means a condition that significantly impacts an individual’s life activities. By getting involved in the conversation about mental health, museums can help to tackle stigma. They can also work to improve people’s health and wellbeing.

Museums raising awareness of mental health issues

Many countries around the world now have mental health awareness dates in their calendars. It is important for museums to mark these awareness events. They are a useful opportunity to highlight the issue of mental health and to start conversations.

In 2018, the Science Museum of Minnesota marked Mental Health Awareness Week with a series of events. The museum featured an exhibit called Mental Health: Mind Matters. The interactive exhibition featured personal stories from people living with mental health issues. As well as this, visitors could ‘shred’ their worries in a worry shredder. They could also take part in a quiz on mental health misconceptions. Members of staff from NAMI hosted workshops and discussions as part of the week’s schedule. The museum said that the events started an important discourse. They were “designed to facilitate conversation, foster understanding, and make way for healing.”

For World Mental Health Day in 2015, the Tate Modern in London held an interesting day of workshops and installations. Flight was a creative event produced in collaboration with six arts and mental health organisations. The day was designed to be accessible for all ages. Activities included an introduction to animation and an origami workshop. Visitors could create their own watercolour butterflies. They could also explore the themes of flight and sanctuary.

Art therapy and mental health

Art therapy is a creative way to tackle mental health issues. Participants use art to explore their feelings. It is a technique that can be used with a variety of different ages to explore and treat a range of conditions.

Art Shed is an art course held in Bristol’s M Shed. The intended audience is people with low-level mental health issues. For example, anxiety or depression. People taking the course can be any age, from teenagers to retirees. Participants meet in the museum on a day when it is closed to the public. This means that they feel like part of a special club. One said, “I feel part of something that I normally wouldn’t have a connection with. I actually feel I’ve got a connection with the building and it’s like a privilege pass kind of thing.” Attendance is flexible, meaning that if people don’t feel up to coming every week, they are still able to take part. Participants are free to work on their own artistic projects. New techniques such as lino printing and paper folding are explored each week. Psychology students at the nearby University of the West of England evaluated the course. They found that “participants’ mood had increased during the workshops and participants [felt] more positive and more energetic.”

MShed mental health project

MShed is using art therapy to tackle mental health issues

The 2gether NHS Foundation Trust took a more structured approach with its recent study into art psychotherapy and museums. A group of NHS art psychotherapists delivered a programme for adults aged 18-25. The course took place at two museums in Gloucester over 18 weeks. During the 90-minute sessions, members worked on art projects based on their reactions to the museum. They were invited to explore and find pieces that they could connect with. Work took place in a private space within the museum. The sessions ended with group reflection work. Alison Coles is one of the art psychotherapists who was involved in the project. She explains that participants “felt less defined by their mental health difficulties because the sessions were not held on NHS premises.”

Mental health and wellbeing of young people

Yorkshire Sculpture Park is working to tackle mental health issues

Yorkshire Sculpture Park, UK

Young people can be at risk of developing mental health issues. Teenagers often face a lot of pressure. This can be pressure to fit in, to do well in their studies, or to find their place in the world and establish their own identity. This can lead to anxiety, depression, stress and body image issues.

From 2012 to 2015, Yorkshire Sculpture Park worked with My Artistic Voice. Together they delivered a project called Breathing Space. It was a therapeutic art project, working with vulnerable young people. They came together weekly at the sculpture park, which served as a safe space for them to work on art projects. The scheme included interaction with the outdoors, art, and general wellbeing activities. The confidence of the participants improved over the course of the project. So much so that they wanted to display some of their work to the public. The resulting exhibition was called I Made That From Scratch. Some group members spoke about their work to the public and described how it made them feel. Many of the participants described a sense of pride and value as a result of the project.

Another UK project worked with young people who were out of school due to illness. It was a partnership between the Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester Hospital Schools and the Home Teaching Service. The project was designed to get the children involved with arts and culture. They were able to visit and interact with the gallery. Pupils from the Royal Manchester Children’s Hospital School and the Leo Kelly Centre made trips to the Whitworth Art Gallery over 16 weeks. They took part in workshops on many different topics, from poetry to printmaking. They also worked with artists on creating their own pieces. These were used to transform the appearance of Galaxy House, the young people’s mental health unit within the hospital. Through this project, residents of the unit had a direct hand in making it a more welcoming and vibrant place.

The outcomes of the project were positive. Many children engaged with the scheme and showed increased wellbeing. An OFSTED report into the hospital school found that “pupils’ social, moral, spiritual and cultural understanding is well promoted particularly through their recent inclusion in an exciting new project linking arts, media and museums with mental health and wellbeing.”

Community projects in museums

People who have mental health issues can often feel isolated. Community groups and projects can be an excellent way of combatting this. Group activities allow people to connect with others who are having a similar experience. This can help to make them feel less alone.

The Horniman Museum and Gardens in London works with partner organisations and community groups to promote good mental health. One recent project is a collaboration with SLaM NHS Trust Recovery College. The museum provided training so that group members could work together to create discovery boxes. These are mini-museums in a box, comprised of objects from the holding collections. Participants were responsible for deciding on a theme. They were free to choose which pieces to use as part of the boxes. Working on the project was a positive experience for the group. As well as this, the outcome was a new resource that future museum visitors can use. Georgina Kettlewell is head of learning at the museum. She says that it is important for the museum to respond to the needs and wants of its audience and the local community.

Exploring mental health

There are many misconceptions and stereotypes surrounding mental health conditions. Museums can help to counter these by examining the topic. They can invite visitors to explore the subject of mental health in more detail. One way of doing this is through exhibitions and events.

In 2018, the Museum of Science in Boston held an exhibition called Many Faces of Our Mental Health. The idea behind the exhibition was to challenge some of the stigma around mental health issues. It made the point that there is no one type of person who is the face of mental illness. It can affect people of any age, sex or race. A key part of the exhibit was a photo wall depicting 99 portraits. A third of these were people who had experienced schizophrenia. One third was people who had experienced bipolar disorder. And the final third was made up of portraits of the people who love them.

One UK museum is dedicated to the topic of mental health. The Bethlem Museum of the Mind was opened in 2015, in the grounds of the Bethlem Royal Hospital. It holds a collection of art, archives and objects. These are related to the history of mental healthcare and treatment. It records the experiences of people with mental health conditions throughout history. It also celebrates the achievements of people who have mental health issues. Artist Grayson Perry officially opened the museum. He said, “Art should not be viewed just as a visual culture but as an essential human process of self-exploration and communication. The work the gallery and museum do is of vital importance and will create a legacy for the understanding of mental health for years to come.”

Mental Health is important for everyone

Projects and exhibitions that explore mental health have positive effects. Not just for individuals, but for museums themselves and the communities that they serve. One participant in the Horniman Museum’s project with SLaM Recovery College said that they felt personal benefits. But in addition to this, they also enjoyed the opportunity to help others as a result. Museums can help people feel a connection with their community. Interacting with others through arts and culture can help people to break free of the isolation that mental health conditions can cause. One member of the M Shed’s Art Shed project said, “You feel kind of connected to the centre of Bristol. You know you’ve got a connection whereas it can feel very isolated with depression. You’re in the real world where everything is going on.”

When open and honest conversations about mental health issues are made possible, everybody can benefit. Museums are considered to be safe spaces where everyone is welcome. Therefore, they are an ideal place for these conversations to happen. Mental wellbeing is equally as important for health as physical wellbeing is. It should not be overlooked or marginalised.

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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