Are museums good for your health?

In Museums on September 6, 2016 at 2:34 pm

If you’re poorly, it’s likely that your doctor will tell you to take some medicine. We’re used to receiving a prescription, taking it to the chemist and collecting our cure. And it’s also common for healthcare professionals to prescribe other things, such as therapeutic measures – physiotherapy, advice, counselling etc.

Today doctors were encouraged to give overweight patients ‘green space’ prescriptions to get them exercising outdoors.

But what about a trip to a museum? Have you ever heard of a doctor telling you to go see the dinosaurs or Egyptian mummies in order to effect health benefit?

It turns out it’s happening already. As part of what’s called ‘social prescribing’, healthcare professionals are directing patients to take part in activities that promote wellbeing.

Museum reminiscence projects have been helping to support people with dementia for years. Reminiscence allows people to focusing on what they have got, not what they have lost and to keep memories alive.

There’s a fair bit of interest in this area of work. University College London is part way through a three year Museums on Prescription research project (2014-2017) which is exploring the value and role of museums in social prescribing.

And there’s evidence out there already to suggest that increasing understanding and empathy for those living with and caring for people with dementia helps to promote care and compassion in the healthcare workforce.

But let’s remember that the wellbeing agenda has been a part of museum learning thinking for quite a while now. Individual museums have been delivering wellbeing projects in all but name since their inception.

A good example of this is the Art Museum in Ancoats led by Thomas Coglan Horsfall (1841-1932). The museum was a direct response to the work of John Ruskin (1819-1900) and an articulation of Horsfall’s commitment to a belief in the personal and wider social benefits of appreciating beauty through art.

Indeed, Ruskin opened his own museum in Sheffield for steel workers to visit on their days off, partly for their artistic education, but also as something pleasant to do and to feel good about themselves.

But many museum activities around wellbeing have simply been going under the radar.

It’s perhaps that work like this has been defined in a museum context, not in health context that news of it has been limited to cultural spheres. The links to the wellbeing impact that a museum visit might have, have not been made as explicitly as they could have been, or in terms that are relevant to the healthcare sector. Instead, this work has developed organically in museums and galleries, often driven by the aspiration to grow and respond to new audiences.

And so it’s really pleasing to learn there’s work now being done to join the worlds of healthcare and heritage together, to create a common language that professionals from both sectors can understand.

Imperial War Museum North’s if: Volunteering for wellbeing programme is the first major project to measure the impact of responsible volunteering in the heritage sector. The research uses a methodology called ‘Social Return on Investment’ to measure improved wellbeing in participants. The ongoing evaluation project will explore how volunteering can combat social and economic isolation and articulate the benefits for individuals, organisations and society.

The evaluation is seeking to find out exactly how the if: Volunteering for wellbeing project promotes individual wellbeing and how specifically volunteering in heritage venues contributes to this.

Using evidence like this, healthcare professionals and museum professionals will have more opportunities to link their work together. This could certainly be of benefit to the NHS, which is always looking for new methods of treating patients outside hospitals and other traditional healthcare spaces. It could benefit museums, who get to use their buildings and collections in new ways and demonstrate their relevance to society. And, most importantly, it’s of benefit for patients, who are able to access wellbeing healthcare in a new way too.

For those of us working in the heritage sector, we understand the feel-good factor that can come from a museum visit. Here’s hoping research like this will allow more people get to experience that too.


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