The subject of wellbeing and mental health within arts and cultural institutions is often centred around displaying or using objects to provide therapeutic assistance to those suffering with mental health issues.
At the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam, the team chose instead to begin by using their main subject as the starting point for a new mental health programme. The goal was to make a positive contribution to the wellbeing of younger adults.
In their recent presentation for MuseumNext, Ann Blokland and Sarah Broekhoven from the Van Gogh Museum discussed how Vincent Van Gogh and his personal struggles with mental health helped to inspire their new community-led programme.
Van Gogh and the museum dedicated to his work
The Van Gogh Museum in Amsterdam is home to Vincent Van Gogh’s paintings, drawings and letters. Mental health is a part of his story and there were well-documented periods of melancholy in his life that, ultimately, resulted in some of his most celebrated art.
Van Gogh was voluntarily admitted to a psychiatric institution after cutting off his ear during one of these melancholy periods. But there is no doubt that art was a support for him and something that he hoped would console and inspire others.
As Ann and Sarah explain, there is a mad genius label attached to Vincent Van Gogh that has been spurred on by books and films over the years. Some interpretations of his life and his art suggest that his work as a great and impassioned artist can be attributed to the nature of his mental illness. However, it is clear from the letters displayed in the museum that his skill as an artist endured in spite of his illness, not because of it. In fact, it is evident that he couldn’t work when feeling ill.
Until 2016, the mental health of Vincent Van Gogh was presented factually as part of a small display which missed the opportunity to address mental health in a broader, more general way. At the same time, the museum realised that mental health was becoming a broader social issue, particularly for young adults where research has shown that 25% of young adults suffer from anxiety, depression and stress.
It was important for the Van Gogh museum to contribute using Vincent’s own story to help develop conversations and connections on the subject of mental health.
Engaging with Vincent’s story
The museum had previously initiated art programmes with elderly people and high school students to help show how art could have a positive influence in wellbeing and mental health. Using best practice from other museums, the Van Gogh Museum is now creating a mental health programme with developed activities and creative tools that feature experience stories at their heart.
To frame the programme, the team reached out to a community of young people experiencing mental vulnerability to ask how the museum could be of service to them. In response, they suggested that the museum should help in normalising the experience of not being mentally healthy and stressed the importance of reaching out for help.
Specifically, they asked to help give young people with mental health issues a voice by letting them tell their story in a way that might link to Vincent’s. They also suggested having a sequence or follow-up opportunity where people could go for further activities or reading. This would also serve to create a safe environment for sharing.
But most important at all, the community of young people felt it was important to avoid labelling those suffering from mental health issues. The relatable aspect of Vincent’s story was that fact it wasn’t about his exact illness.
A pilot mindfulness programme was a resounding success – displaying to young people how art can inspire wellbeing in a variety of settings with follow-up sessions online. The museum also arranged workshops in a mental health institution where feedback was overwhelmingly positive from both participants and caregivers – commending the way the workshops incorporated the painting of emotions and creating art.
The Van Gogh museum now hopes to broaden the pilot projects into a wider programme with the potential for a greater audience. Most importantly, it kickstarted a new approach by the museum to develop inclusive style guides for museum texts. This is now very much part of the Van Gogh Museum story.
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.