As the home of King George III while receiving treatment during his periods of severe ill mental health, Kew Palace is no stranger to the subject of mental health and wellbeing. In a more contemporary setting, the museum is leading the way in positioning the wellbeing of its team as a key component, both before and during one of its most recent exhibitions.
Until recently Rachel MacKay was the manager at Kew Palace. In her presentation for the Museums, Health & Wellbeing Summit, she discussed how they have been rethinking how to support the mental wellbeing of volunteers, staff and front of house teams in the museum setting.
The Mind Behind the Myth
In the Summer of 2021, Kew Palace launched a new exhibition, called George III: The Mind Behind the Myth. Kew Palace was the ideal location to explore the education, passions and interests of the King but the exhibition also had a secondary function. This was to see how this famous mental health story is understood in the context of modern society and how attitudes have changed.
The more contemporary angle of this exhibition was tackled in two ways. Firstly, by working with a group of men with experience of mental ill health to interpret the historic items on display and what it meant to them. For example, King George often played music during periods of ill health and visitors responded positively to this theme of sanctuary in artistic expression as something they could relate to.
Kew Palace, London
Secondly, visitors were asked to donate items to the exhibition. Some of these items were very difficult and related to anxiety, depression, abuse and even suicide. In light of this, staff needed to be trained and prepared carefully in how they supported the exhibition – particularly when talking to visitors. Every visitor brings with them their own experiences of mental health and to be sensitive to these issues, the Palace team introduced a new session called Talking About Mental Health to help hosts understand the impact of their words on visitors.
The exhibition naturally raised questions from visitors asking what was wrong with the king. This was answered in a more contemporary context by looking at statistics in a myth-busting way that used correct terminology. But, of course, the fact remains that a mental illness should not be diagnosed over a void of two centuries and hosts were encouraged to move visitors away from the mystery solving aspects of the king’s condition and think about the bigger issues at play.
This was a conscious decision led by spending time in community settings with people suffering from mental health issues. These individuals reported that a diagnosis often felt more important to people around them so they could be comfortable with a label. This very much informed the exhibition direction.
As well as undergoing mental health first aid training, it was imperative that hosts were not taking the emotional weight of the exhibition home with them. From day one, hosts received wellbeing sessions so that talking and being open about mental health in the workplace was a key theme amongst staff.
As an approach, this level of early and ongoing support is something that can be replicated across other museum contexts to help front-facing teams have the confidence to enter dialogue with visitors on difficult subjects. If a topic is likely to cause reactions in visitors, it is important to make sure front of house teams know how to signpost correctly and are knowledgeable on the programme plan to offer trigger warnings or rest spaces.
The key, according to Rachel, is to set a culture of openness from day one, check in with the team regularly and make sure that conversations on the floor are not too distressing.
Rachel MacKay shares more of her thinking on museums in her blog, The Recovery Room.
Interested in learning more about how museums are making a difference to the health and wellbeing of the communities that they serve? The Museums, Health & Wellbeing Summit is a two day virtual event that will bring together leading museum thinkers to share their ideas and experience. The conference will take place 6 – 7 February 2023, and can be watched live or on-demand after the event.
About the author – Tim Deakin
Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.