Museums in Mind: Exploring the therapeutic role of museums for people with mental health problems, and working towards best practice
It is estimated that there are around 2500 museums in the UK that entertain and educate many millions of visitors each year. Increasingly, however, the cultural heritage sector is seen to have a role in society beyond entertainment and education. Museums are being urged to work more closely with communities and deliver benefits in terms of wellbeing. My PhD will explore how museums engage with people with mental health problems. Working with people who use mental health services and museum professionals I will explore the experience of visiting and participating in museum programmes. What are the outcomes of this encounter, the possible therapeutic benefits, and the issues involved? From my research I will establish some recommendations for future practice.
Today’s agenda for museums represents their evolution from specialist organisations that carefully collected and curated objects and opened their doors to a learned few, to being potential agents of change within society. To justify public and private expenditure the 21st century museum has needed to demonstrate validity with increasingly inventive approaches to on-site and outreach encounters, these initiatives being driven by the concerns of local communities, particularly those members that are marginalised. The importance placed on the museum’s potential role in wellbeing was signalled by the establishment of the National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing in 2015.
This agenda has come increasingly to the fore against the background of a rapidly evolving healthcare system with new challenges facing policy makers and healthcare professionals. The Mental Health Foundation published statistics in 2016 that reveal the growing problem of poor mental health in the UK (Mental Health Foundation, 2016). For individuals struggling with mental health a complex range of potential options for treatment are available with a growing emphasis on independent living and multi-agency responsibility for health and wellbeing. Social prescribing is being developed as one such option, with individuals being prescribed a range of activities as part of their treatment package. This new practice in prescribing has the potential to involve the museums sector.
I will explore today’s museum experience with people who use mental health services through visits, object handling sessions, and participation in programmes and workshops. I will reflect with participants on their involvement, looking for instance at the social and cultural outcomes of participation and thinking about the benefits individuals have felt and any issues that have arisen.
In addition to more traditional encounters with museums, my research will look at the work of projects involving people who use mental health services in the co-curation of museum exhibitions. Although there are examples emerging of this type of initiative, there is only very limited evaluation of the outcomes for individuals encountering the museum and its collections in this way. I will work alongside individuals to co-curate new materials for display, and evaluate the outcomes of this involvement. In addition I will talk to museum professionals and people who use mental health services that have worked together to bring displays to the public in the past. Against the background of third sector organisations such as the Mental Fight Club bringing together individuals with mental health problems to critique treatment, explore identity and challenge the stigma associated with mental health, I will consider the possible role participating in the museum narrative could have at both an individual and community-wide level. Can the museum, too, serve as a space in which individuals with mental health problems can explore their identity and the representation of mental health within society today?
Exploring audience development and the role of the museum within society has been the focus of my research and professional life for a number of years. I graduated from Newcastle University with a Masters in Museum Studies in 2001. The focus of my MA study was exploring how museums engaged with people with learning disabilities. During my research I talked to a broad range of audience members about their experience of visiting museums, from children in the classroom to residents in care facilities.
In my role as Head of Audience Development for York Archaeological Trust I worked with colleagues to encourage access to the collections at the JORVIK Viking Centre, Barley Hall and DIG. Recent projects included working with people who use mental health services to facilitate exploration and participation in the narratives of these attractions. Together we produced three ‘soundscapes’ exploring the Viking journey, archaeological discovery and landscapes of remembrance. These projects proved the inspiration for my current research.
In 2016 I was awarded an AHRC Heritage Consortium PhD studentship. My supervisors are Dr Simon C Woodward at Leeds Beckett University and Dr Rob Ellis at Huddersfield University.