Mainstreaming wellbeing

Alistair Brown, 14.03.2016
Museums need to demonstrate the value of their wellbeing work
Earlier this month I attended the National Alliance for Museums Health and Wellbeing’s first national conference at the Whitworth in Manchester.

In spite of rain, hail and snow, the Whitworth was packed. The conference sold its 200 tickets several weeks early, and the organisers told me that they could have sold three times as many.

The overwhelming popularity of a conference on health and wellbeing in museums is testament to the growing wave of interest in what museums can do to make positive interventions in people’s lives.

Throughout the day, we heard plenty about dementia interventions, the benefits of object handling and the third sector partners that can help museums to identify groups of people in need.

But if this conference revealed a roomful of best practice and good intentions, it also revealed two recurring areas of concern for museum professionals. Money – never far from our minds these days – is still scarce and patchily available.

We heard several good examples of wellbeing work commissioned by health trusts, local authorities and clinical commissioning groups, but the message from Gregor Henderson of Public Health England was that his cupboards were almost bare, and that cultural organisations will have to fight hard for their share of the health spending pie. “We’d like you to do wellbeing work, but we can’t pay for it,” seemed to be the subtext of much of this discussion.

If museums are to get their share of health and wellbeing funding, we will have to deal with the second area of concern – evaluation. It’s hardly a word that gets the pulse racing, but time and again we come back to this issue of demonstrating the impact and value of a museum intervention in health and wellbeing.

Why should the health service invest money in culture, rather than sport or behaviour change programmes? At present, a few enlightened health professionals seem to “get it” – but many others still want to see hard facts and figures, and there was precious little evidence of hard quantitative data at the project level at the conference.

The takeaway, then, was that we need to keep on persuading, talking about and talking up the work that we do in health and wellbeing, while also getting better at accounting for what we do. We know that Museums Change Lives – and we have momentum on the ground and the support of groups like the National Alliance to campaign and coordinate.

Are there barriers? Certainly. But with the enthusiasm and can-do attitude on display at the conference, anything feels possible.