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Using trauma-sensitive mindfulness in museums

In a busy and stressful world, practising mindfulness can be a gateway to navigating the more challenging aspects of our lifestyles. Museums and galleries can play a central role in offering mindfulness sessions that make use of objects and artwork at their disposal. 

Louise Thompson is health and wellbeing manager at Manchester Art Gallery and a wellbeing consultant to museums and galleries. She is a key supporter of mindfulness practice in museums but, through her work, has become conscious of the negative effects mindfulness practice can have on individuals who have experienced trauma.

In her recent presentation for MuseumNext, Louise shared the core benefits of mindfulness for museums and focuses on how to deal with trauma-sensitive individuals in a way that supports delivery staff and encourages engagement from visitors.

Mindfulness principles 

For over 10 years, Manchester Art Gallery has been developing work around mindfulness. This has led to the creation of an array of projects, programmes, one-off workshops and a stand-alone art and mindfulness exhibition. Mindfulness is embraced by the museum to engage with art and collections and as an effective way to help people improve their own wellbeing.

There have been cases where mindfulness, or certain forms of teaching mindfulness, have proved problematic for those who have experienced trauma. In some extreme cases, even leading to individuals being re-traumatised during mindfulness classes. Keeping this in mind, there are core principles to be aware of in trauma-sensitive practice when it comes to mindfulness – known as “The four Rs”.

Firstly, Realise that trauma is more prevalent in society than people think it is and understand that someone in your group, tour or classroom may have experienced trauma. Secondly, Recognise someone’s symptoms could be a result of trauma. For instance, someone struggling to stay still or not wanting to engage in a class. Number three is Respond skilfully and non-judgementally to people displaying symptoms of trauma. Finally, Re-traumatisation is very much something to avoid and can be done by taking pre-emptive steps in the planning and delivery of mindfulness classes.

Principles of trauma-sensitive mindfulness 

There are seven main principles of trauma-sensitive mindfulness.

Assume
Assume that someone in the room has experienced trauma and plan your class outwards from this assumption

Informed consent
It’s always best to have a no surprise policy when dealing with people who have experienced trauma so ensure that all participants have consented and are informed about what the class will entail

Keep it short
In a traditional mindfulness class, meditations can last up to 30 or 45 minutes so keep sessions short for those who may find this too challenging

Sensory based
Use the art and objects within the museum to keep the practice sensory-based

Choice
Participants must know they have a choice or an alternative to any element of the class that might be triggering

Control
The most important aspect is to ensure participants feel they are in control of the situation and can remove themselves from any situation that might be problematic

Person-centred
People must be at the centre of any approach to mindfulness, arts and objects should come second

There is no way to know what people will find triggering during mindfulness practice and there is little point in trying to predict this as it can be unique to the individual. However, by following the core principles, it is more conducive to respond to someone showing distress in a situation and respond confidently to resolving it.

Often, it is better to work in partnership with organisations or teachers to deliver mindfulness and ensure that staff can access trauma awareness training. Be mindful of working with qualified practitioners in this area and where possible, practice mindfulness personally to see for yourself the benefits it can offer your institution.

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