The Holburne: museums on prescription

Louise Campion, Learning and Engagement Lead at the Holburne, reflects on how museums have a part to play in the promotion and management of health and mental wellbeing, and introduces the ideas behind a new show, called People Make Museums, that opens there in January.

What are museums for? Places to while away a few hours on a rainy day, calm ‘go-slow’ spaces, somewhere to learn about history or meet a friend. Or maybe you think museums aren’t for you? However, have you ever considered that visiting a museum or joining a museum-based group might actually be good for your health?

The Holburne Museum has long been committed to building on the powerful relationship between art, creativity and wellbeing reflected in its mission of ‘Changing Lives Through Art’. Over the last six years its creative Pathways to Wellbeing programme has been supporting people living with mental health challenges and social isolation by bringing museums, art galleries, mental health and support organisations together to work in partnership across the Bath area. Along with our museum partners the Bath Preservation Trust, the American Museum & Gardens and the community-based organisation Creativity Works, the museum has engaged with over 750 young people and adults over the last three years.

So how does it work?
These groups are open to anyone struggling with a mental health issue such as depression, anxiety, PTSD and issues relating to social isolation including social anxiety. People can be signposted to the programme or referred by health and support organisations such as Bath MIND, B&NES Talking Therapies, GPs or through self-referral. Each creative project is co-produced with group members and inspiring lead artists – from sculpture to printing, people are encouraged to try art for the first time, learn new skills and explore their creativity in supported, safe and inspiring spaces. Pathways to Wellbeing offers long-term support and engagement opportunities and recognises that life-transforming change happens over time as trust and confidence build.

Whether working with people living with dementia and their carers, or young people struggling with anxiety and depression, we regularly witness the therapeutic effects of nurturing curiosity, creativity and connection in our museum-based groups. I’m a passionate advocate for museums as spaces of care, creativity and wellbeing because I’ve seen how people slowly relax, build their confidence and express themselves whilst meeting in a non-clinical environment without judgement or stigma.

Here’s one participant’s take: “The museum is my safe space. It has opened up my eyes to things I’ve never done before and given me a voice to express myself.”

This is important because it is estimated that one in five patients visiting their GP do so for problems that require a social solution rather than prescribed medication. You might have heard of the new ‘Social Prescribing’ link workers in GP surgeries. Their role is to support people to explore community-based activities including those in galleries, museums and libraries as a way of managing both psychological and physical conditions.

Above: Onward by Mary Caron Courtney
Above: a creative session for Pathways to Wellbeing

The Holburne and partner museums are not alone in this work. In 2017 a survey showed that over 600 museums and art galleries in the UK were running programmes specifically aimed at health and wellbeing. There is a growing awareness that ‘the arts’ have a significant part to play in the promotion and management of health. This is backed up by comprehensive and compelling reports from the World Health Organisation and a UK Parliamentary report Creative Health. This concluded that arts-based approaches to health can help to alleviate the pressure faced by primary and social care systems, helping people to stay well, recover faster, manage long-term conditions and experience a better quality of life.

With the lockdown closure of museums in 2020 and 2021, we were forced to pause our face-to-face group meetings. During this time we worked with a small advisory team of young people, designing and packing 500 Create@Home art boxes, full of museum-inspired creative activities and high-quality art materials. These were distributed to those young people most affected by covid and the effects of self-isolation and restrictions, working with Ralph Allen and St Mark’s secondary schools in Bath, and Mentoring Plus and the Child & Adolescent Mental Health Service hubs in Keynsham and Melksham.

Weekly Creativity 4 Wellbeing activities were also developed, which were posted on the website every Wednesday morning. We asked people to share images of what they’d made by 4pm the same day and were astounded when emails started to arrive showing the wonderful responses that had been made at home. To see some of this lockdown creativity visit the @changing_lives_through_art Instagram. One person completed all 25 of the activities and has turned her spare room into a lockdown gallery!

Working virtually, and sharing our exhibitions and collection objects via Zoom, it was hugely rewarding to discover that people were still eager to connect with museums. They asked questions about how historical objects were made and used – from Japanese netsuke to Georgian ‘patches’ (beauty spots) and how they were attached to the face. When walking around the empty museum – closed to the public and cared for by a skeleton staff – we noticed that while being safe, the objects were somehow silent. It was at this point that our exhibition People Make Museums was conceived as a celebration of the creative and imaginative interactions which bring museums to life.

These works seek to capture the fleeting conversations, sudden revelations, unspoken thoughts, sensations and feelings evoked by museums and objects­­­­­

People Make Museums showcases work made by those who have participated in the Pathways to Wellbeing programme over the last six years, alongside practising artists and museum staff and volunteers. Each sculpture is a unique response to the experience of visiting, volunteering, working in and attending creative groups in museums.

Exploring personal moments of connection, these works seek to capture the fleeting conversations, sudden revelations, unspoken thoughts, sensations and feelings evoked by museum spaces and objects. Here we find stories, memories and ways of seeing that celebrate, challenge and reinvigorate museums and their collections.

The exhibition is intended to highlight the importance that creativity and cultural connection can play in many peoples lives. From the success of Grayson Perry’s Art Club to the social media phenomenon of ordinary people recreating famous artworks with home-made props – there is clearly an appetite.

For the Holburne our ongoing commitment to creativity, health and wellbeing seems more important than ever. We continue to care for our collection but we also care about people – for it is people’s ideas, creativity and continued desire to engage that are at the heart of the museum.

Louise Campion is Learning and Engagement Lead at the Holburne Museum and manages the Pathways to Wellbeing Programme which is generously funded by the National Lottery Community Fund and St John’s Foundation, Bath.

People Make Museums is at the Holburne Museum from 27 January to 8 May 2022. There is also a People Make Museums Symposium on 29 April 2022;

Featured image: A Piece for All Ages, by Janette Massey