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The role of museums in supporting the wellbeing of children and families

When we consider the modern lifestyle there often seems to be a distinct lack of good old-fashioned, wholesome fun to be found. Although advances in science and technology present us with so many benefits, you don’t need to be a luddite to appreciate that progress has come at something of a price.

Whether it’s the reduction in face-to-face interactions or the corrosive effects of regular social media usage, there are many theories as to why this generation of children are less happy than those before them.

In the UK, The Good Childhood Report commissioned by The Children’s Society has stated that while childhood happiness rose steadily between 1995 and 2010, that trend reversed over the subsequent decade. And it’s a similar story in much of the world – exacerbated further by the onset of a global pandemic that has driven up anxiety and increased social isolation.

So, how can museums play a positive role in uplifting child happiness and supporting family wellbeing?

The benefits of arts and culture to wellbeing are well established and museums have long held a reputation for engaging, entertaining and stimulating families. Culture provides us all with ways to explore and create shared experiences, making sense of the world around us in the process.

Not only that but according to a report by the Cultural Learning Alliance, children who engage with the arts at a young age are “more likely to vote, volunteer or go on to further study later in life. It helps to improve cognitive abilities, develop skills and behaviours and benefits health.”

So, it seems entirely natural that museums should have roles to play in the rediscovery of happiness. Whether it is programming designed to calm families suffering from anxiety, or experiences designed to initiate conversation and a greater sense of community, families can be encouraged to feel inspired and connected through arts and culture.

The art of interactive exhibitions

Interactive exhibitions and activities make a family visit to a museum both absorbing and joyful. The Manchester Museum has shown this to be the case through its wellbeing programming. The museum has a varied programme of family-friendly, interactive play sessions, each of which has been instrumental in welcoming children, young people and families with open arms.

The museum’s Muso Baby pilot used music and sensory play to support the wellbeing of visiting under 5s and their mothers. With a music therapist and museum staff at the helm, these interactive play sessions have provided the perfect environment to develop the parent–child bond, even in the face of post-natal depression or pandemic-induced anxiety.

The consistent structure, interactive nature, and theme-based substance of the sessions has sparked interest, whilst retaining the familiarity that comforts and inspires confidence in young children and their parents.

The power of family volunteering

Volunteering at a museum is a particularly beneficial experience for families. As well as offering people the chance to support an institution they love, volunteering provides a prime opportunity to meet new people, be a part of the community, learn new skills and knowledge, inspire others, and preserve heritage.

Above: Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester

This is exactly what The Whitworth Art Gallery has done in the UK: launching a family volunteer programme that encourages entire family groups to support the museum, re-engage with learning, and create meaningful experiences for others.

The initiative, which has been a central case study in the Kids in Museums charity funded by Arts Council England, family volunteers were offered a unique opportunity to work collaboratively, spend quality time together and engage with other family groups.

According to Kids in Museums, these volunteer roles have proved to be instrumental in helping new parents and families to re-engage with the community and overcome the feelings of isolation that often accompany parenthood.

Online programming as a lifeline

As millions of parents around the world can attest, museums have acted as a critical lifeline for families through the pandemic as a resource for education and entertainment. Whether it’s the online programming from Tate Kids, the wealth of content housed on the Smithsonian Institute website or the varied offerings available through Google Arts and Culture, cultural institutions have stepped up in supporting families through the challenges of home schooling.

While some have enabled children to explore new ideas and express creativity as an individual, others seek to bring families together to work on projects as a team – serving to strengthen family bonds and, ultimately, enhance happiness.

As we look beyond the restrictions of the pandemic we also need to acknowledge that online museum solutions will continue to play an integral role in engaging children and their families. With accessibility and inclusivity front of mind, museums can use digital platforms to work around the practical barriers that currently prevent many families from visiting museums in person.

Final thought

At a time when children’s mental health appears to be at a low ebb, museums will continue to have a role to play in transforming children’s lives and supporting families to experience joy together. Introducing children to cultural organisations with their families makes them significantly more likely to visit as adults – enabling them to continue to gain the myriad benefits that museums can offer throughout life.

Find out more about health and wellbeing in museums at the upcoming Museums, Health and Wellbeing Summit running 31st January – 2nd February 2022.

About the author – Tim Deakin

Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.

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