Museums and Enlightenment

Zoe Brown of Tyne and Wear Museums (TWAM) on placing health and wellbeing at the heart of museums.

I want to begin with a disclaimer: these are my thoughts, playfully based around the notion of ‘what if’, they are not fully formed and certainly not representative of TWAM (just so you know)!

The director of TWAM, Iain Watson and I presented at the Museums, Health and Wellbeing conference in March this year at Birmingham Think Tank. We were talking about how TWAM has embedded health and wellbeing within the organisation. Iain said something that really struck a chord with me about museums and enlightenment and that’s what I want to use to frame some ideas in this blog.

Iain discussed the idea of enlightenment relating to education. He suggested that museums had embraced education to the extent that now it is expected of most UK museums to have an accessible learning programme. This led to him suggesting: “Maybe there is a new era of enlightenment forming that places health and wellbeing within museums?”

It’s summer now and I’ve been mulling this over since hearing it, so I thought seeing as I had been asked to write this blog about ‘what things might affect museums working around health and wellbeing in the next few years’, I’d attempt to gather those thoughts and develop them further. So I turned to history to explore what’s already happened, what milestones can be seen now as having played a part and what could work now?

Enlightenment is the ‘European intellectual movement of the late 17/18th centuries emphasising reason and individualism rather than tradition’. During that time museums became important educational places with a duty to inform and educate the general public with the intention of freeing people, enriching lives and making a better world.

It could be argued that it is since the 1980’s that you can see the most significant development in museum engagement practice. Shifts in language reflected changed thinking so museum education departments became museum learning teams. Inquiry based learning where children and young people steered their own learning was given status and learning was also seen as lifelong. This development of learning within museums didn’t happen overnight, there was a strong cohort of museums professionals across the UK developing practice and pushing for change and it lead to Renaissance funding for museums which played a crucial part in museum learning becoming so embedded, normalised and expected by both museum professionals and the people who engage with museums.

What would an embedded, normalised and expected health and wellbeing offer be in museums? I’ve used my what if list to think about this.

What if………

  • Occupational therapists were based in museums.
  • Mental health professionals used non-clinical appropriate cultural spaces to meet their patients.
  • Speech therapists used museum object handling box resources to stimulate conversations.
  • Community health and wellbeing workers felt confident using and leading heritage and arts as a stimulus.
  • Museum interventions were written into dementia patients’ care plans to help reduce challenging behaviour.
  • Museum studies courses had health and wellbeing modules.
  • Social work, social care, youth and community work and medical students had cultural practice modules as standard.

The truth is a lot of this list is already happening across the UK but it’s in pockets across services. Some of these ‘what ifs’ have been recommended by cohorts of professions such as APPG in the Creative Health report. I see museums and other cultural and creative organisations as now being on the cusp of a new norm where health and wellbeing has a home within cultural organisations with the vision of making a healthier, happier world. But what’s that going to take?

Necessity and partnership: health and wellbeing prevention is increasingly seen as key and museums have buildings, people and resources to share to support this agenda.

A cohort of professionals: professionals from museums and within the health and wellbeing sector are developing practice with each other, specifically the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance and the All Party Parliamentary Group for Arts, Health and Wellbeing. Both offer a strong voice.

Funding: more museums are being commissioned by health and wellbeing bodies but it is still piecemeal.

Research and evaluation: firstly know the difference between them! Prove your worth, all commissioned services should be evidence based and to do this, academics, museum and health and wellbeing professionals need meaningful partnerships that produce useful research outcomes.

In recent months I have attended a number of health and wellbeing events and it has been fascinating to enter into this different world and has really helped me understand some of the issues (or perceived issues) being discussed. Among many highlights I heard the following:

‘Research is the key to everything that we do’ – Public health England.

NHS is sick, it’s not about health anymore as it was intended, it’s become about sickness and treating sickness.’ Professional from mental health sector.

Prevention should be priority.’

Last year I heard a speaker from the health sector candidly stating that if, a few decades ago, he had put the millions of pounds funding he had raised into a prevention model rather than a treatment model it would have saved hundreds of thousands more people in the long run. However, it would have been an unpopular decision and the model he did fund remains an amazing institution and held up in high esteem.

This has led me to consider the most important thing that will affect museums is the bravery of decision makers in health and in culture: to take risks and champion preventative models.

Zoë BrownZoë Brown, Tyne and Wear Museums


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