Trendswatch | Fit for purpose

Exercises classes in museums are bringing in a healthy revenue and new visitors, says Jasper Hart
Jasper Hart
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Museums and galleries across the UK are broadening their appeal by staging an ever-wider range of events to attract new visitors. One of the ideas becoming popular is fitness activities.

The concept of exercise in a museum got a head-start two years ago when New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art began a Museum Workout, which entailed a calisthenics circuit around its galleries. At the same time, institutions such as the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and the Brooklyn Museum in New York began yoga sessions in their galleries.

Yoga appears to be one of the most appealing forms of exercise for museums to promote, as it carries a low risk of damaging exhibits, promotes mindfulness and can be fairly unobtrusive.

The National Gallery of Ireland in Dublin holds yoga sessions three times a month. They take place during opening hours and are led by Mary Dowling, a gallery guide and certified yoga instructor. She tells participants about the architecture and art in the Grand Gallery, where the sessions take place. Her moves invite a slower, more measured appreciation of the art and space, and visitors are free to walk through the Grand Gallery during the sessions.

“We regularly have non-yogis stopping by and sometimes they will sit down and take a few moments,” Dowling says. “While they can’t join in, they can still watch us moving gently and enjoy it themselves. The energy in the room relaxes everyone because there’s less rushing around and talking.”

The Natural History Museum (NHM) in London holds yoga sessions once a month before opening hours in its iconic Hintze Hall, underneath its blue whale skeleton.
The hall provides an impressive point of entry to the museum, but is often passed through quickly by visitors who head off to other areas. The yoga session encourages people to consider the space more carefully by connecting yogic movements to the natural world via the hall’s architecture.

“We tend to talk about whatever the people doing yoga are facing,” says Lucy Woodbridge, the head of visitor events at NHM. “For example, when we do the triangle pose and are looking at the ceiling, we talk about the ceiling artwork.

“Museum visitors probably would not experience that on a normal day because their senses are taken up by so many things around them. The script is about the fact that the museum is a cathedral to nature and we do point out that the poses are all animal themed.”

In Chichester’s Pallant House Gallery, the yoga sessions are held in a closed room and involve a 10-minute period where practitioners are invited to look at a single painting without distraction.

Yoga not only provides a more mindful and relaxed way to appreciate museum exhibits but, in the case of the Cynon Valley Museum in Aberdare, offers something that is hard to find elsewhere locally: it holds a chair yoga class, which is accessible to older practitioners and those with disabilities.

“It was about getting a different audience into the museum,” says Charlotte Morgan, the manager of Cynon Valley. “Most of the people who come haven’t visited the museum before.”

Of course, for a smaller venue such as Cynon Valley, an offering beyond the museum’s standard remit is also financially important. “As an independent museum it helps us to become self-sustainable, so that’s the other benefit aside from the wellbeing,” Morgan says. “It’s nice because it does both.”

Jasper Hart is a freelance writer

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