Behind the Scenes at the 21st Century Museum (MOOC) week 5

Theme: the role of museums awareness/supporting mental health and wellbeing

Mental health – increasingly recognised as being connected to our social, economic and cultural contexts

There is something very important about the bodily, cognitive and emotional connections that objects enable us to make, and which are linked to positive wellbeing, including opportunities for tactile engagement and playful encounters (even if we do not fully understand why). (University of Leicester)

Trends in health:

  • aging population
  • Modern lifestyles – smoking, obesity, alcohol use

So what’s the role museums can play here?

  • awareness raising roles – making links, places for debates,
  • therapeutic roles – reflecting individual and common experiences
    • therapeutic roles of objects/collections eg “house of memories” where objects can trigger things eg memories, sense of identities
    • they are also social spaces where social engagement can take place
    • enjoyment and learning – satisfying curiosity
    • they are places where people can make sense of things

But this isn’t accepted by all. Some say it detracts from the core purpose of museums and there is limited evidence that it works, although there are toolkits – see here.

Defining wellbeing New Economics Foundation

Five actions

      1. connect
      2. be active
      3. take notice
      4. keep learning
      5. and give

These can be used as a lens through which to shape museum activity and evaluated using a Generic Wellbeing Umbrella in before and after sessions. (Sourced here)


Examples of practice focussed on – HIV, smoking, dementia

There was considerable discussion amongst participants regarding this week’s topic and whether health and wellbeing is or should be the goal of museums.

I prefer the role of museums to be primarily concerned with exposing me to things I either didn’t know about or offering new insights.  Health and wellbeing is a laudable aim, but I am not sure it should be a museum’s primary concern. For example, how would you score a visit to the  Auschwitz-Birkenau museum?


About Pete

South Londoner struggling with life, art and photography.
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