Well-being & psycho-physical health

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How to develop activities and programs related to well-being and mental-health through your museum collection

Credit: Almigdad Aldikhaiiry, Degrees of Separation, 2019

More and more studies suggest how “experiencing” any art form can improve a person’s state of well-being.

For John H. Falk, executive director of theInstitute for Learning Innovation, the individual finds the museum an inspirational place where the museum experience is able to enhance his or her state of well-being.

J.H. Falk outlines in his studies four areas of well-being that a person is able to achieve through the museum-visiting experience:

  • Personal Well-Being – Museums catalyze wonder, interest and curiosity, factors that can promote personal awareness and identity. They manage to create moments of serendipity and elicit in the individual bonds, connections, belonging and harmony with society and the natural world;
  • Intellectual Well-Being – museum institutions support people in finding connections to their own History and knowledge of the past, to understand what skills and activities have survived to the present day, thus giving direction for building a more informed and aware future;
  • Social Well-Being – Museums are able to create a sense of belonging through exhibited cultural products toward a cluster, a group, a larger community or toward society;
  • Physical Well-Being – museums historically have been perceived as safe, healthy environments, centers of creative engagement that allow people to gather (physically or virtually), interact, explore, play, and have fun without fear or anxiety.

If more and more studies show that museums combat stress, reduce social isolation, and increase self-esteem, what are the ways and forms in which this benefit can be achieved and extended to a wideraudience , with a focus on those who have more difficult access due to economic and social factors?

Wellness and mental-health programs and activities

From Jan. 31 to Feb. 2, MuseumNext held an international summit where activities and programs focused on user wellness and mental health from across the global museum sector were shared.

The case studies presented at the conference can be divided into three ways in which museum collections can be used to support the health and well-being of various stakeholders.

1. Collections to support the training of professionals

A 2018 study published in Academic Medicine showed how the insight of artist Anne Willieme, founder of a program(ArtMed inSight) in which art is used to improve perception and communication in the medical field, developed in participants a greater tolerance for uncertainty and there was an improvement in their method of thinking.

For example, the Groninger Museum has partnered with the University Medical Center of the City of Groningen to develop activities in which the museum’s art collection is used to train future physicians.

The enormous stress caused in recent years by the COVID-19 pandemic led the museum to create a specific program to safeguard the well-being and health status of physicians in their training.

Through these workshops , the Groninger Museum was able to reduce the trainees’ stress and improve some of their skills such as empathy, listening, and observation.

2. Collections to support the well-being and health status of the public

Museum collections can be used in innovative and often surprising ways to support the health and well-being of their audiences. One example is multidisciplinary projects that use their collections to create programs related to mindfulness meditation.

As mentioned in a previous article, the program developed by the Rubin Museum, provides weekly mindfulness meditation sessions inspired by the museum’s artworks and led by a professional. Each session is recorded to make it accessible for on-demand listening.

Another way to support the state of health and reach its audience outside the museum walls is through the creation of art kits.

The best known project is Your Met Art box, an initiative of the Met Museum to promote connection and well-being through art-making. Theart kit, delivered once a month to housebound people, contains four reproductions of works from the museum and some questions for reflection and interaction with creative practices.

The National Galleries of Scotland, together with the Edinburgh Children’s Hospital, also created Art Helps Packs, kits with art materials inside for hospital patients.

Another example related to a different target audience is the Meet Me at MOMA, a project developed since 2007 that gives visitors with Alzheimer’s syndrome the opportunity to be able to attend the museum several times with their caregivers and be guided through the rooms by trained art educators.

3. Collections to support the dissemination of mental health issues

Some museums already welcome stories related to mental health within their collection. It is only in recent years that this aspect has been taken into account so that it can be explored within the contemporary experience.

The exhibition George III: the mind behind the Myth, developed by Kew Palace, is related to the figure of King George III and his last period marked by physical and mental problems. To address the exhibition’s theme, the Kew Palace team was trained to address sensitive discourses such as suicide and issues related to the human psyche with the public.

The Van Gogh Museum has begun to openly address the famous artist’s mental illness. The museum team decided to partner with local communities to create a mental health program that aims to promote dialogue, offer creative tools to sustain one’s state of well-being and promote diversity.

Another example on how to use the collection to support health and well-being is a school seminar developed by London’s Jewish Museum.

The purpose of the workshop was the development of emotional awareness in younger children: in addition to explaining what the Holocaust entailed through the life and collections of the museum, the children were able to explore their own feelings about living with grief and the moment of loss.

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