Museums: therapeutic and emotional?

By Nicky Boyd

The sector gets together

The programme for the Museums Association (MA) 2013 conference in Liverpool was certainly refreshing. Over two days delegates were invited to explore the themes of the ‘Therapeutic Museum’ and the ‘Emotional Museum.’  This interesting focus obviously tied in to the Museum Associations new vision for the increased social impact of museums: Museums Change Lives. Sharon Heal, head of publications and events at the MA, reminded us that ‘there is a growing discussion about whether museums can make people feel happier and healthier’ and provocatively asked ‘can museums improve wellbeing or should they concentrate on looking after and displaying collections? Can we have it all?’ I was hooked. This conference was really going to focus on our audiences.

UCL Museum Wellbeing Measures Toolkit cover Image © UCL Museums & Public Engagement 2013
UCL Museum Wellbeing Measures Toolkit cover
Image © UCL Museums & Public Engagement 2013

 

Liverpool: centre of debate

Liverpool was the perfect place for conversations of this kind. The city is leading the 2020 Decade of Health and Wellbeing national campaign. This campaign articulates five ways to achieve wellbeing: Connect, Be Active, Do Something, Take Notice and Keep Learning. The underlying message is that our mental health and feeling good is as important as our physical health.  As a sector we’ve become much more audience focused, we listen more, we have a greater understanding of our audience’s needs and interests. We want to develop ongoing relationships with our users; we want to make an impact on people’s lives.  This conference promised to be a meeting of minds.

 

Already in the thick of it

Carol Rodgers, executive director, education, communities and visitors at National Museums Liverpool (NML) coordinated the ‘Therapeutic Museum’ strand. She said ‘great museums understand the needs of the communities they serve and develop effective partnerships that deliver high quality and innovative opportunities for social engagement.’ I agree and have seen many excellent examples of this throughout the many years I have worked in the sector. Recently the The House of Memories and the Happy Museum Project (now on the brink of a third phase of activity funded by ACE Renaissance Funding), both come to mind. Some museums of course still have untapped potential.

 

Show me the evidence

As a museum audience research and evaluation specialist I know that to develop and sustain this kind of work through meaningful and appropriate partnerships we must continually demonstrate and evidence the impact we have. Carol asked us: ‘how can museums produce the evidence required to build a sustained relationship with the health and social care sector?’ and ‘how can museums demonstrate that they can make a real and lasting difference to the quality of a person’s life?’ So, on a mission to find out more about what’s currently going on in this area I went along to the session entitled ‘The Therapeutic Museum: Take Notice’ chaired by Amy de Joia (executive director of development and communications at National Museums Liverpool).  This session promised to focus on sharing how museums can measure and articulate the value of museum engagement on health and wellbeing.

 

UCL hits the spot

I was particularly interested in the work that Helen Chatterjee (deputy director, UCL Museums and Collections) and Dr Linda J Thomson have been undertaking around evidencing health outcomes in museums. They have produced (with a number of collaborators) the UCL Museum Wellbeing Measures Toolkit funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC).  It’s a set of scales of measurement used to assess levels of wellbeing arising from participation in museum and gallery activities. It has been designed to help people involved in running in-house or outreach museum projects, evaluate the impact of this work on the psychological wellbeing of their audiences.

 

Measure for Measure

Background research revealed the need for generic, museum-focused measures of wellbeing following similar lines to the Generic Learning Outcomes and Generic Social Outcomes.  Prior to this work, a three-year AHRC-funded research programme called ‘Heritage in Hospitals’ was carried out by UCL and University College Hospital Arts. The project used clinical measurement scales to assess the benefits to patients of handling and discussing museum objects with a facilitator.

 

Raindrops keep falling

The UCL Museum Wellbeing Measure Toolkit utilises colourful and easy to use ‘wellbeing measures umbrellas’ consisting of a hexagonal shape with six sections of different colours. Warm colours are used for the Positive Wellbeing Umbrella, cool colours for the Negative Wellbeing Umbrella, richer colours for the Older Adult Umbrella and fluorescent colours for the Younger Adult Umbrella. Each of the six sections has a word next to it related to a wellbeing mood or emotion and numbers from one to five. Participants are asked to rate the extent they feel the wellbeing word at that moment in time by circling the appropriate number.

UCL Positive Wellbeing Umbrella – Generic measure Image © UCL Museums & Public Engagement 2013
UCL Positive Wellbeing Umbrella – Generic measure
Image © UCL Museums & Public Engagement 2013

Audiences Audiences Audiences

The work the UCL team have been doing is really inspiring (and colourful!) and I’m looking forward to trying out the toolkit soon as part of an appropriate evaluation project.  Really useful tools like this which can help us measure and evidence our impact around wellbeing is crucial.   Making sure our audiences remain at the heart of what we do will help us build strong organisations with well developed partnerships that look to the future. The future will be our audiences. Attending the conference was time well spent. Well done to the Museums Association and all the great speakers.

Nicky Boyd, Museum Consultant (Audience Research & Evaluation).  www.nickyboyd.co.uk

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