Once upon a time front line healthcare was heavily weighted towards the treatment of physical ailments and diseases of the body. And while most GPs and other practitioners around the world would still say that this takes up a considerable amount of their patient care, there is no doubt that societies are now looking beyond the ailments that we can see and touch towards those that are having such a damaging effect on mental and emotional health.
As the need to prioritise mental health gains traction in the community, museums have fast become allies to healthcare professionals and sanctuaries for those in need of help. Indeed, even for those who largely enjoy good mental health, museums can offer the opportunity to maintain a positive state of mind – much like a gym can help to keep the body strong and cardiovascular disease at bay.
Museums and galleries as healthcare partners
In a paper published in Perspectives in Public Health, Paul Camic and Helen Chatterjee explored ‘Museums and art galleries as partners for public health interventions’. The report makes the case that the majority of public health programmes are based in community settings, places of employment and schools, and that the cultural heritage sector is “an underdeveloped area for public health-related planning”. It goes on to suggest that cultural attractions should be used for public health programmes in order to support “the health and wellbeing of the communities they serve.”
In the report, research from across several different countries is reviewed, assessing the effectiveness of museums and galleries in supporting mental health. Based on the successful findings of this research, Camic and Chatterjee propose greater collaboration between healthcare and cultural heritage “to further advance research, policy development and evidence-based practice” with the goal of utilising museums as mental health aids.
Painting in hospitals
An example of how the collaborations suggested in Perspectives in Public Health can be put into practice can be found in Painting in Hospitals – an initiative through which healthcare professionals bring art into a healthcare setting. This group works with major museums in order to bring world-class art, talks, exhibitions and residencies to people who are not able to visit a museum or gallery for health reasons.
The group have worked with a wide range of museums and cultural institutions, including the Arts Council Collection, the National Gallery, Central Saint Martins and the V&A. Through their work with the former, Paintings in Hospitals has managed to showcase over 100 artworks to people in hospital – demonstrating the value of greater accessibility within the community.
Beth Hughes, Collections Curator at Arts Council Collection, comments: “Part of our mission is to show art all around the UK in a range of public buildings, such as universities and libraries, as well as galleries and museums. Working with Paintings in Hospitals helps us to bring art to the public to enhance wellbeing and enrich people’s lives.”
V&A Dundee and Barchester Healthcare
Last year, museums and healthcare once again came together when V&A Dundee announced a new partnership with Barchester Healthcare. This involved the celebrated Tayside museums delivering a series of exclusive online events for care home residents.
A wide range of talks, tours, artworks and exhibitions were showcased to residents of Barchester Healthcare care home, including the first ever international retrospective of famous fashion designer Mary Quant. The outreach work is part of the museum’s ongoing communities programme, which is supported by the People’s Postcode Lottery.
Discussing the benefits of the initiative, head of learning at V&A Dundee, Joanna Mawdley, said: “We are always looking for engaging opportunities to enrich people’s lives through design and it is wonderful to present a series of talks on our outstanding exhibitions to so many of Barchester’s residents across the UK. We are delighted to have the opportunity to bring our stories to life for so many individuals who cannot visit the museum in person.”
Similarly, resident experience manager at Barchester Healthcare, Lucy Tomlinson, says the sessions have been a “fantastic addition” for residents.
In the wake of a global pandemic and economic and political uncertainty, the value of museums has been brought into stark focus. The impact of global lockdowns and isolation from cultural attractions has only served to highlight how valuable they are to our wellbeing and mental state.
As the world emerges from the worst of the Covid crisis, museums and galleries must surely now lean into that responsibility and seek to integrate more effectively with the healthcare sector to maximise the potential of social prescribing and help to enrich the lives of people within their communities.
Find out more about the health and wellbeing issues currently impacting museums at the upcoming Museums, Health and Wellbeing Summit, running 31st January – 2nd February 2022.