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Education, exhibitions and support – Tackling the topic of Cancer in the Museum

Cancer has a major impact on society in the United States and across the world. Most people know someone whose life has been affected in some way by this disease. In fact, around one in three people will have some form of cancer in their lifetime. It is one of the leading causes of death worldwide. Cancer can affect people of any age, sex or ethnicity. About nine out of ten cancer diagnoses are in people aged 50 or over.

There are many things that scientists don’t yet know about what causes cancer. However, there are several clear risk factors. Some of these are elements that people can alter through lifestyle changes. For example, smoking can cause cancer, but the body starts to recover quickly once a person quits. Five years after quitting smoking, a person’s risk of developing some specific cancers is cut in half. But there are other risk factors that people have no control over, such as age, sex and genetic makeup.

Cancer and Museums

How can museums help people with cancer?

There are many ways that museums can play a role in supporting cancer patients and their carers. Museums can provide information, which helps people to understand more about the disease. For some people, finding out more about what is happening can be helpful when coming to terms with cancer. For others, different types of support are available. This could take the form of museum-based support groups, art therapy sessions or group projects. Museums can also help the friends and family of cancer patients. These people may be in need of support as they adjust to the diagnosis while supporting their loved one.

Providing accurate information in a trusted setting

Museums are great at researching information and displaying it in an easy to understand format. In the age of Doctor Google, being diagnosed with something like cancer can be scarier than ever. There is so much information available on the internet. For a lot of people, the initial urge with any illness is to run to the search engine. This is often counterproductive. The average person does not have the medical knowledge to separate the facts from the fiction in a sea of information. Much of the information available on the internet will be from trusted sources. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of personal storytelling, unproven solutions and conjecture.

It is sensible to go to a medical professional when you have questions about a cancer diagnosis. But many people are reluctant to enter the environment of a medical practice or hospital if they don’t have to. They can be frightening places with unhappy connotations. Museums, on the other hand, are a safe space where people may feel more comfortable speaking about scary topics. One museum in Scotland has teamed up with a cancer charity to provide an information and support service. Inside the Gallery of Modern Art Library in Glasgow, Macmillan Cancer Support runs an Information Point.

Scottish museum GOMA

This service is open once a week and staffed by trained Macmillan staff and volunteers. A range of help is on offer. This includes information, advice, practical help or just the chance to chat with someone who understands. There are many worries that a person with cancer or their loved ones might be experiencing. For example, financial issues or emotional stress. Visitors can get accurate and trusted information from this help point. It also provides signposting and referrals to other services, from activity classes to carer support.

Museums helping people to learn more about cancer

Cancer is such a huge topic. Doctors and researchers are finding out more information about it on a day to day basis. For people who have cancer, finding out more about the disease and how it works can be a useful exercise. It can help when adjusting to a diagnosis. For society as a whole, learning more about cancer can help us to understand what a cancer sufferer faces. It also helps people to be more informed about their health and wellbeing.

In 2007, the Tayside Medical History Museum held a temporary exhibition. It took place in Ninewells Hospital in Dundee and charted 100 years of cancer research in the area. It was a Scottish surgeon, John Hunter, who first had the idea to attempt surgical removal of cancer tumours. This was in in the 18th Century. The exhibition tells the history of cancer treatment from this early pioneer to the modern day. Dundee is a world leader in cancer research. The university has teams of researchers looking at many facets of the topic.

The Deutsches Museum in Munich has a permanent set of exhibitions on the human body. This includes an exhibit dedicated to cancer. It explains to visitors what cancer is, and how it affects the human body. Displays detail how cancer forms, and how it spreads through the body. Visitors can view scaled up images of cancer cells alongside healthy cells. The exhibition explores how modern cancer treatments work. It also illustrates the risk factors and things that people can do to reduce their risk of cancer.

The Science Museum of Minnesota in St Paul held a special event in 2019. This one-day event gave visitors a chance to learn all about cancer. During the interactive session, people were encouraged to ask questions. There were visiting professionals such as scientists and doctors on hand to answer. The museum showed some of the cutting edge treatments used to tackle cancer. It also highlighted some of the key research that is taking place in the field.

Helping children come to terms with cancer through art

For young people, a cancer diagnosis can be life-changing. As well as the stress of fighting the disease, children have to spend long amounts of time in medical facilities. These environments tend to be clinical and can be frightening. In addition to this, being out of school and away from their friends can leave them feeling isolated.

Art therapy projects can have a positive impact on young cancer patients. It helps them to process the complex emotions they may be experiencing in a safe way. From 2017 to 2018, London’s Foundling Museum worked with Great Ormond Street Hospital on a project called ‘Hetty’s Hospital’. Young patients made artwork based on the book Hetty Feather by beloved children’s author Jacqueline Wilson. The main character of the book, a foundling herself, does not encounter many acts of kindness. The project allowed the young people to reflect on acts of kindness they had experienced in their own lives. It featured recordings of the children who took part. They described acts of goodwill they had encountered during their treatment from doctors, nurses and family.

It can be difficult to talk about cancer, particularly with children. One museum in the US runs sessions that promote good family communication. The Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens in Jacksonville facilitates the five-week sessions. Children are guided through projects by art educators and social workers. The aim of these projects is to encourage discussion. Meanwhile, the adults meet next door in a group with a social worker. Here they learn tips on communicating with their children about cancer.

Art therapy for adult cancer sufferers

Art therapy can be a useful tool for adults who are dealing with cancer too. Again, it is a way of helping them to work through their emotions. Cancer can cause a lot of different stresses and worries. It is beneficial for patients mental wellbeing to explore these feelings.

The Delaware Art Museum in Wilmington previously ran an exhibition of artwork by people with cancer and cancer survivors. The project was a partnership between the museum, Cancer Support Community Delaware and the Helen F. Graham Cancer Centre & Research Institute. Vanessa Simon, Museum Associate at Delaware Art Museum is an advocate of art therapy. She found it useful during her own experience with cancer. She talks about, “Art through photography, through storytelling, through creative community. I found solace in creative projects and my own 365 photography challenge. Each day of taking a photo helped me to look for things that I was grateful for, to see the world again not through the lens of cancer but through new eyes of life.” For this project, three art workshops took place over three months. Participants created art together in a supportive environment. At the end of the sessions, the museum hosted an exhibit of the work called ‘Healing Through Art’

Communicating with the public what life with cancer is like

A current exhibition at The Whitworth in Manchester, UK, shows the public what life is like for a handful for cancer survivors. The exhibit is called ‘Facing Out: Life After Treatment for Facial Cancer’. It is a collection of portraits by artist Lucy Burscough.

Whitworth Art Gallery

These are of people who have experienced facial cancers. The exhibition pairs the portraits together with the pieces from the Whitworth’s collections. The participants selected these pieces themselves. The aim of the exhibition is to put the participant’s point of view front and centre. It allows the public to see what their lives are like and witness their experiences. There is also a programme of musical performances, film screenings, workshops and talks running concurrently. This has been co-curated by the Facing Out participants.

A similarly-themed exhibition is due to open at another Manchester venue. The Lowry is holding an exhibition entitled ‘Life’. It features portraits of people living with cancer. 21 people took part and were photographed by Zoë Law. The exhibition aims to raise awareness of the cancer support charity Maggie’s. It also highlights the support needed by people with cancer and their loved ones.

Law captured the portraits over the course of a year in her London studio. She says, “This project was one of the hardest things I’ve undertaken because it was so important to me to show each person’s strength and move the focus away from their cancer. For the portraits to share how cancer does not define them, nor has it taken away their essence. The people who came to my studio taught me a great deal. Primarily that a cancer diagnosis isn’t the end but a way of looking at life differently. What the subjects of these portraits said is that cancer had given them time. Time to live in the moment, time to appreciate the everyday and time to tell friends and family how much they are loved. I called the project LIFE because the sense that came from the photographs was that cancer does not make you look at death but at the life you are living.”

Cancer is not a simple subject

The word ‘cancer’ is an emotive one. There are many people affected by cancer worldwide, both directly and indirectly. It is not a simple subject and when we talk about cancer there are many different strands and topics within it. But museums have the potential to help with many of these. They can highlight research and raise awareness of new developments. They can help to educate the public and provide more information on what cancer is and how it works. Museums can also do a lot of work to support people affected by cancer, from art therapy for patients to information and support for carers.

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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