Monday, 20 May 2013

Museums Health & Wellbeing

Museums Health & Wellbeing

Patients at University College Hospital enjoying an object handling session

Can museums improve your health and wellbeing?

This is a question we have been tackling here at UCL Museums. We’ve been interested in museums’ role in health and wellbeing for a while, so when we were awarded a 3-year research grant from the Arts and Humanities Research Council we set about trying to answering the question: what is the therapeutic value of handling museum objects? We focused this research around hospitals and care homes, as traditionally museums have not worked particularly closely with these organisations.


Our approach has been to work in partnership with a range of collaborators from academics, museum curators, clinicians, hospital patients, care homes residents and their families and carers, applying rigorous methods for assessing the impact of museum encounters on health and wellbeing. We ran over 300 one-one and group object handling sessions in hospitals and care homes and acquired lots of data during the process. Using standardised clinical measures for quality of life, psychological and subjective wellbeing, alongside qualitative analysis of conversations from the handling sessions, we acquired a detailed and nuanced view of the discrete ways in which museums impact individual health and wellbeing.


The results of our research showed highly significant improvements in positive emotion, wellbeing and happiness, improvements in patients’ perceptions of their own health and optimism about the role of museum object handling as a distraction from ward life that impacts positively on relationships among staff, patients and their carers.

A Museum Wellbeing Measure

During the three-year period in which we ran the research we became aware that more and more museums were starting to address the health and wellbeing agenda. So this led to a follow up project where we ran a series of workshops and surveyed lots of museums to find out more about what other museums are doing. This work revealed that not only are there many examples of interesting health and wellbeing projects being run in the UK and elsewhere, but museums are targeting a range of audiences (from older adults through to mental health service users) and using a range of approaches to understand the impact of their work on audience’s health and wellbeing.

That said, there is still a huge amount of work to do to fully understand the impact of our work on individual and community health and wellbeing. To this end we have been working with around 20 different museums to develop a museum-wellbeing measure. The idea is to develop a toolkit, which can be used, re-used, adapted and augmented for use in evaluating the effects of museum encounters on health and wellbeing. Watch this space to find out more…


Understanding the impact of museums on health and wellbeing has never been more important than at the present time. The radical reforms brought about by the recent Health and Social Care Act, with a focus on prevention rather than cure and greater involvement of the third sector, presents new opportunities as well as challenges for the museum sector. A further challenge for the museums sector is its financial future; given financial constraints and the importance of partnership working we have been exploring the role of volunteers in extending health and wellbeing programmes into community venues such as care homes, day centres as well as hospitals. Funded by the HLF, our Touching Heritage programme is also gathering feedback from the volunteers about the value of their experience to them and their professional development. Find out more at:

So what is the answer to the question: ‘Can museums improve your health and wellbeing?’

We think the answer is definitely yes. Evidence suggests that museums can help in lots of ways by: providing positive social experiences leading to reduced social isolation, opportunities for learning and acquiring news skills, providing calming experiences leading to decreased anxiety, increased positive emotions such as optimism, hope and enjoyment, increased self-esteem and a sense of identity, increased inspiration and opportunities for meaning making, providing positive distractions from clinical environments including hospitals and care homes, and  opportunities for increased communication between families, carers and health professionals.

Author | Helen Chatterjee is Deputy Director of UCL Museums and a Senior Lecturer in Biology at University College London. Helen’s forthcoming book Museums, Health and Well-being is due out in Autumn 2013.

Further information about the research discussed is available at:

This blog is the first in a series of three by UCL Museums discussing Museums & Wellbeing, as Helen says watch this space…

Tuesday, 7 May 2013

First World War Centenary | A Great Opportunity for Museums

The First World War Centenary | A Great Opportunity for Museums

Since November 2012, when I started my role (which is funded by Arts Council England), I have visited every region of the country to explain why IWM (Imperial War Museums) and the Arts Council think that the First World War Centenary (2014-2018) is a great opportunity for museums.  There are many reasons for this including the length of the anniversary, allowing museums to experiment with programmes, the opportunities to partner with other organisations with the hope that these partnerships will last beyond the Centenary and the huge interest that the public have in this subject and therefore the potential to develop audiences. Through my work, to encourage museums in England to take part in the commemorations [see picture below], I have come across a considerable number of networks and organisations that are keen to do something to mark this important anniversary. If I went into detail on all of the projects that I have come across, this blog would run into a book rather than being a snappy update. This goes to show how little encouraging I have had to do!

Me at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in December 2012

There are probably a variety of reasons as to why everyone is so eager to take part, but I think it has a lot to do with the wide reaching effect of the war – it touched everyone’s lives -  and even if you do not have an ancestor who fought, you live in a world which was radically changed as a result.

IWM is the cultural lead for the Centenary and, in order to help other organisations, created the Partnership Programme. The aim of the Partnership is to create a high quality programme for the public through organisations working together and sharing knowledge with each other. IWM is sharing some of its own collections (which are free to download for members) and expertise through our ‘Useful Guides’. The latter have been created specifically to advise on areas such as teaching the First World War. IWM is encouraging others to share their expertise and to communicate with other organisations to make sure that the public get a coherent and varied offer during the Centenary years.

Organisations, ranging from museums, libraries, archives, schools, universities, arts groups and others, have come together to coordinate varied projects in their regions. In Wiltshire, for instance, key representatives from relevant organisations across the county have come together to form a steering group, which will coordinate their county-wide programme and advise on whether and when events should take place.

Kent and Medway have also formed a steering group after a large meeting of organisations identified the need for coordination. They will shortly be forming sub groups to advise on projects relating to education, research and more. They are going to have a shared blog and calendar for their activities in order that they can compare and avoid duplication of work and type of project – something that is key to the success of the Programme. Furthermore, they want to be able to do joint marketing for events in their region and while this will no doubt be dependent on funding, it is a great ambition to have.

In order to support these new and existing networks, I have been putting together an overview of museum-led activity in England. However, I am now turning my focus to supporting museum projects more practically – be that by bringing more organisations together to work on their ideas, or by helping identify additional support (other than funding) that we can give to certain projects.

Speaking of funding, this is obviously one of the key challenges facing us all. Fortunately, both the Arts Council and Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF) have been extremely supportive of the Centenary and have already provided funding to projects. Additionally, HLF are about to launch a small grants programme specifically for Centenary projects that look at involving young people and communities. At the time of writing, the information was not available on their website, but keep checking back to for further information. Applications are welcome from the end of May.

The First World War Centenary is a great opportunity for museums and other arts organisations to bring together groups of people from a wide variety of backgrounds. As it is a long anniversary, there is plenty of time to try out new ideas and new plans. It is exciting to see how it is already helping organisations to work together, which will undoubtedly have long-term benefits for all.

London has already had a good take up when it comes to the Centenary. However, there have not been any large-scale meetings purely for London organisations, which is why IWM, the London Museum Development Team, HLF and others are coming together to organise one. Speakers will be sharing information and advice but the rest of the session will be for networking. The meeting is planned for the afternoon of Tuesday 25 June at the Churchill War Rooms in Westminster. The details are still being finalised but for more information and if you would like to sign up, please go to: Alternatively, please feel free to e-mail me to find out more or to ask me anything about the Centenary: I look forward to hearing from you.

Author | Josie Gale Centenary Programme Museum Liaison Officer for English Regions, Imperial War Museums and LMG Member.

Owning up to Authorship

Owning up to Authorship
Museums are full of objects, but they are usually just as full – too full, often – of text.  With a combination of object labels, introductory panels and interactive exhibits, a single display space can feature thousands of words. 
Yet almost all of this writing is anonymous; it is very rare to find any kind of label or exhibition authored by a member of museum staff.  Instead the ‘voice of the museum’ is presented as objective truth.  As those of us who work in museums are well aware, most displays – while they might represent a collective effort on the part of a number of people – are the result of a series of individual decisions. We choose the objects to display, choose where they go and choose what we say about them.  We will almost certainly argue with each other about some of these decisions, but the end result will be presented as a single authoritative selection and voice.  Often, a ‘house style’ is adopted for text, which – while it may well make displays clearer to understand – will also help to paper over differences of opinion or approach.  Even the V&A’s excellent gallery text guidelines,  which encourage museum staff to ‘bring in the human element’ and ‘write as you would speak’, stop short of suggesting that you should say who you are. 
 Added to this, almost all museums have galleries where the displays and interpretation haven’t changed for decades. All the staff know that these displays are out of date, that much of the information in them needs revision, but this will almost certainly not be clear to the public. There is no equivalent to the frontispiece in a book, or the documentary credits, which would tell the visitor who put the thing together and when. 
This reluctance to author displays, to name the people who composed them, seems increasingly old fashioned. Particularly so in a university museum context, where authorship is paramount and where the tradition of academic freedom rests upon the belief that individuals should be free to express their opinions in order that they can be opened up to further debate.  In a world where individual comment is increasingly ‘out there’, in blogs such as this one, and where co-curation with academic or community partners is increasingly common, it is surely time we started owning up to the fact that most museum text is someone’s personal opinion, albeit informed and evidenced in a variety of ways.
The stores and cupboards of UCL museums contain lots of objects with hand-written labels. Most of these date from a pre-computer age when it was only worth typing a label if was going on display. Handwriting personalises the information immediately, and if you work in the museum for any length of time you learn to recognise different individual styles, the traces of former curators, some of them now dead, reminding you of their passions and their personalities.  There are probably all sorts of reasons why a wholesale return to handwritten labels would not be a good idea, but is it worth thinking about how we might, as museum staff, own up to authorship of exhibitions and displays?

Author | Sally Macdonald, Director, Museums and Public Engagement, UCL

First published by UCL Museums and Collections Blog on 04 April 2013.  Image and text copyright UCL.

Luton Culture | Waulud's Bank Object Box

Touching Objects | Waulud's Bank Object Box 

Waulud's Bank Object Box | Timothy Vickers, Collections Care Officer and school teacher.

Luton Culture recently piloted a user-created object box based on a local archaeological site, Waulud’s Bank

This pilot was not formally structured meaning that the end product – the Waulud’s Bank object box, a mini museum that contains real objects from the archaeological site, replica objects and archive material – was not anticipated at the start.

Instead an organic approach was taken; year 9 pupils from a local high school worked as museum consultants to help develop the object-based learning resource.

The box‘s self-facilitation design enables it to be loaned out to schools with the objects being a catalyst for teaching. We’ve found that other users also easily engage with the box, from elderly daycentre patients with dementia to sixth-form students, local archaeology societies and University of the Third Age learners.

Using real archaeological objects in the box wasn’t a problem. Rugged and durable objects were chosen, such as pottery sherds and flint artefacts. Any risks outweighed by the power of touch – to inspire, aid the imagination and create a sense of wonder about a topic that is not always easy to teach using archive material such as photographs and maps.

Above all, the box provides a memorable experience for users of all ages and in an intimate way it helps with engagement to the local area and creates an understanding of a sense of place.

Tips for creating handling boxes:

    The box the objects come in is as important as the objects themselves if you want people to engage.
    Life-size replicas can really help. Sometimes seeing what objects would have looked like makes the original fragments more exciting.
    Ask participants for their observations to ensure they engage with objects, rather than just picking up and putting them down.
    Facilitators should use the objects to tell a story.
    Be aware that no two groups will respond in the same way, but that doesn’t immediately mean they are not engaging with the objects and that’s the fun and challenging aspect.

The project was funded by the Museums Association Effective Collections fund. We are now working to disseminate the findings and share knowledge on how to make an effective learning tool for £1,500 (this covers the cost of the box, replicas, graphics and object specialist advice).

For more information on the box please contact Timothy Vickers: / 01582 546722.

Authors | Timothy Vickers, Collections Care Officer at Luton Culture and Julie Reynolds, Freelance Researcher. 

This article was first published by Museum Practice in February 2013.