Reflection on Museums and Wellbeing

© Andy Ford

In this post Laura Bedford, Project Coordinator for the National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing, shares her thoughts and reflections on wellbeing and museums.

I have been the project co-ordinator for the National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing for around three months and in this piece written the week after our second conference and wellbeing in museums week I thought it was timely to explore some key thoughts and reflections I have had about wellbeing work and museums since being in role.

Before this though I feel it might be useful to try and define what health and wellbeing is as it is such a new area of work for museums. The World Health Organisation defines health as ‘a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity’. In 2008 the New Economics Foundation on behalf of Foresight set out five actions to improve wellbeing. These are ‘connect, be active, take notice, keep learning and give’. Many museums have adopted the ‘five ways’ to explore how their provision can support wellbeing for their audiences.

The Alliance began in 2015 and came out of an enthusiasm within the museum sector to address the wellbeing agenda. However, often organisations were left wondering where to start and how to get past the jargon and the unknown world of the health sector. The Alliance sought to bring together expertise from organisations such as National Museums Liverpool, Tyne and Wear Archives and Museums and the Manchester Museums and Galleries Partnership who already had well established programmes. Recently other sector-wide support partners have also joined such as the Age Friendly Museums Network and Happy Museum in order to support museums to navigate these barriers, but also to act as an advocate within the health sector and with policy makers including the government to highlight the huge potential the sector has in this field.

So what led me to apply for the role to manage the Alliance? In order to answer this I must talk about my role prior to working for the Alliance at the Geffrye Museum in Hackney as the Access and Public Programme Manager. One of my first priorities when I started at the museum back in 2005 was to set up the older people’s programme and over the years I could see first-hand how our work and similar provision within the sector could support people’s health and wellbeing. For example, if we use the ‘five ways’ as a model and measure this against the activities the Geffrye ran both on-site and as outreach sessions such as gardening, object handling and creative craft workshops it is easy to see how they contributed to people’s wellbeing: activities enabled participants to ‘connect’ with each other socially which was especially important for more isolated older people, gardening allowed people to be ‘more active’, exploring objects, the gardens and plants supported people to ‘take notice’, all activities helped people to ‘keep learning’ and finally by sharing their own experience, stories and expertise such as gardening tips meant people were also able to ‘give’.

I also saw the importance of working in partnership with local organisations such as hospitals, care homes, housing associations and charities amongst others in order to reach out to the community as well as the value of co-creating provision with audiences in order to shape and direct the programme as the Geffrye had set-up an older people’s advisory panel which included participants. I was keen to encourage and support more museums to undertake this kind of work which led me to apply for the role.

Since managing the Alliance and particularly when organising our second Museums, Health and Wellbeing Conference which was held at the Thackray Medical Museum on 6 March I have started to rethink the way museums can approach wellbeing by not just setting up provision for particular audiences that have specific needs but taking a more holistic approach by embedding it throughout the whole organisation. I have been inspired by organisations such as Yorkshire Sculpture Park, York Museums Trust and Kirklees Museum and Art Gallery who ran workshops at the conference and talked about their work which included not only programming activity for specific audiences with particular health needs but how they were also exploring how to enhance staff, volunteer and general visitor wellbeing. This approach also mirrors the health sector’s prevention-based model where supporting people’s general wellbeing is intended to lead to less people needing interventions earlier from hospitals, GPs etc.

Another interesting realisation for me is that it seems apparent that many museums are often already undertaking health and wellbeing work but are not defining it in this way. For example, before leaving the Geffrye I was working on a project with our local community to encourage groups to co-curate displays for a new gallery we were going to be creating as part of a large-scale redevelopment project. We were keen for our local community to be represented and had been working in partnership with organisations such as Derman who were set-up to support mental wellbeing within the Turkish and Kurdish communities in Hackney. Internally this would be ‘categorised’ as an audience or community development programme, but from working with this group and other similar organisations I noticed the benefits it was having for people’s wellbeing too.

The conference kicked off wellbeing in museums week where we asked organisations to send us details about their activity. This could be existing programmes that were taking place during the week which would help to raise awareness of what sometimes can be quite hidden work. The week also offered the opportunity for museums to pilot something new and to invite local health organisations to see what they’re up to in order to look at potential partnership opportunities. There were also organisations who were offering training or networking opportunities for people to talk about and share their programmes and issues that might have come up. Through promoting these events I have been impressed in how museums are using the whole of their sites from collections, buildings and grounds to support people’s wellbeing. From meditative self-guided walks for all visitors around Kirkstall Abbey Ruins in Leeds to a family wellbeing day at Dove Cottage in Cumbria which used mindfulness to encourage families to slow down the pace of their life for a few hours.

Now that the conference and wellbeing week are over my attention now turns to looking at ways to support more museums to feel confident to start undertaking this work. I have been meeting with Arts Council Museum Development Officers to plan regional training days which will be taking place throughout 2017 and we are also starting to gather thoughts from the sector about the creation of online resources, webinars and advice sheets. We’re keen to hear what people might be interested in and so please follow us on Twitter or become a member of the Alliance to find out how you can input into this process (please see details below).

From working for the Alliance for only a short time it seems there is a huge appetite from both the museum and health sectors to find ways of working together to undertake health and wellbeing provision and there are already fantastic examples of good practice going on across the country. Have a look on our database if you are interested in finding out what else is going on out there. I am excited by what this year holds and hopefully supporting more partnerships to start taking place.

For more information:

Five ways to mental wellbeing – https://www.gov.uk/government/publications/five-ways-to-mental-wellbeing

The National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing – https://museumsandwellbeingalliance.wordpress.com/

The Alliance searchable database of museum and wellbeing projects – http://museumsandwellbeing.org/

To join the Alliance – www.jiscmail.ac.uk/MUSEUMSANDWELLBEINGALLIANCE

Follow us on Twitter – @museumwellbeing

 

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