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…


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