Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter - Museums Association

Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery, Exeter

The Royal Albert Memorial Museum & Art Gallery (RAMM) in Exeter has been working since 2013 to become more dementia-friendly and develop activities for people with dementia. RAMM’s eclectic collections are built from a Victorian legacy of stuffed animals, art related to Devon, ethnography, costume and local archaeology.

The museum presents itself as a home to a million thoughts, and regularly uses objects to spark conversations – about identity, or to promote wellbeing, or both.

This project aims to offer something fun and eye-opening to people living at home with a diagnosis of dementia, at a point when the world is often starting to feel smaller.

RAMM worked with Innovations in Dementia, which advises businesses on being dementia-friendly and supports people with dementia to voice opinions. It asked NHS public health experts, doctors, academics and a visionary occupational therapist to be critical friends.

To start with, sessions themed around the seasons used objects from across the museum’s collections, in displays and handling opportunities. The summer activity looked at sea creatures, fossils and shells. Autumn focused on leaf motifs and wood carvings. The winter session combined Arctic peoples’ clothing with evocative discussions around cosy quilts and Roman heating tiles. The cycle ended with spring flower images and stuffed birds.

The project is called Living Each Season, from a quotation by 19th-century US nature writer and philosopher Henry Thoreau: “Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influences of each.”

Participants – most contacted through the Alzheimers Society – are not defined by their condition, but by taking part. The theme puts everyone in the room on an equal level, and provides an uplifting reminder of renewal.

It’s a methodology and an ethos that’s closer to mindfulness than reminiscence. It’s about experiencing and enjoying the moment. One gentleman said: “If you see something extraordinary and have an emotional reaction, part of you wants to find out more about it… you go, ‘wow,’ and just the fact that it’s not necessarily obvious what it is can be really, really positive.”

RAMM has incorporated training and methodology from New York’s Museum of Modern Art, to develop tours and art-making around a contemporary art exhibition. The next stage is combining all these elements, to create something regular that people can count on.

RAMM experimented with making talking photo albums for a few participants, incorporating personalised conversations and information. Participants loved them, but it was expensive – the albums themselves are £28 each, with recording and editing costs on top of that.

RAMM spent £1,600 in the first year of its dementia work and £2,600 in the second year, including three small external grants for specific costs. The project took up most of the half-time hours of a community participation officer, and RAMM needs to secure more funding for the future.

Regular participants are happy to be observed and give feedback, making the museum confident that it is listening to and learning from the people most affected by dementia.

Internal awareness-raising has been hard to institutionalise, but the project has found goodwill from all sorts of colleagues, from the design team to front-of-house and volunteers.