As awareness of a growing mental health crisis spreads, museums are among the organisations offering people support.
In Bath, the Holburne Museum’s Pathways to Wellbeing programme works with mental health organisations to give people a chance to make art in a museum environment. One participant was homeless when they first attended a session, but is now a support worker for the group.
The programme manager at the Holburne, Louise Campion, says the museum offers “a calm public space that feels safe, physically and psychologically”. The Harris Museum, Art Gallery & Library in Preston also runs a mental health group, named Art and Mind. Participants include service users, as well as people with mental health issues who have not accessed services.
Kyra Milnes, who runs the programme, says it helps participants focus on something else for a few hours. The works they create have included paintings, sculpture and poetry.
Campion and Milnes both say museums can be inspiring for people who may attach negative associations to traditional healthcare or clinical environments. They add that museums must work with local health organisations to identify needs in communities, and that first impressions are vital.
The Holburne, as a traditional-looking museum, can be intimidating to some, so staff ensure that the minute people step through the door they are met with an encouraging welcome. Campion agrees, saying that the Harris pays great attention to room layouts, group ground rules and the language it uses.
An evaluation of the Holburne’s programme found that engaging in the sessions decreased people’s sense of anxiety and boosted their feelings of engagement.
With one in four people in the UK experiencing a mental health problem every year, other museums are also encouraging conversation around this issue through exhibitions. London’s Science Museum recently opened the Wellcome Galleries (see review, p52), five spaces to house its medical collections. The venue has found innovative ways to display the history of mental health treatment.
In the medical isolation section, visitors can enter a stone replica of a padded cell and hear recordings of people talking about their experiences of being confined in spaces such as this.
Natasha McEnroe, the keeper of medicine at the Science Museum, says making sure the exhibits reflect lived experience has been vital. One display features electroconvulsive therapy equipment, which was used to transmit electric currents to the brain in timed pulses. “To get around the differences of opinion on the ethics of this form of treatment, people’s voices are crucial,” says McEnroe.
The display label therefore features quotes to represent positive and negative experiences of the therapy. The Wellcome Galleries worked with mental health service users, who shared their stories in various ways.
“We wanted the experiences and humanity of medicine present,” McEnroe says. To achieve this, films, oral histories and recordings of people reading their own poetry have been interwoven through the galleries.
Giving voice to a personal experience was also central to Dominik Czechowski’s curation of an exhibition (until 1 March) at London’s Jewish Museum about Charlotte Salomon – a German-Jewish artist who used her work to combat depression and suicidal thoughts. She painted while in hiding in France and was killed aged 26 at Auschwitz.
Czechowski says his aim was to let Salomon speak intimately to the public, rather than imposing a curatorial voice. This guided the way English translations have been placed around paintings that include German text, so that the impact of the work is as immediate as possible for visitors who don’t speak German.
“I’d like the exhibition to encourage people to seek help and to be inspired by a story that is so tragic, but left something behind that is so beautiful,” says Czechowski.
Tilda Coleman is a freelance writer