It is no secret that supporting wellbeing within the community is an increasingly important objective for museums. In the wake of the Covid pandemic and cost-of-living crisis, the sector has had to adapt and respond to an ever-increasing demand for services and spaces that can enrich and improve both mental and physical health.
This is not easy, particularly when budgets are cut and staff often find themselves under increasing strain with minimal resources.
While the response to the pandemic proved that a lot can be done in times of extreme pressure, many museum professionals have begun to reflect on the successes and failures of community outreach – and are asking what can be done to create a safe and ethical environment that protects not only participants but also staff, volunteers and freelancers.
Working in partnership
Helen Chatterjee, a professor of biology at University College London, co-founded the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance to support individuals across the arts and health sector who are taking part in wellbeing work through networking and asset mapping, so regions can share resources and see where their strengths and weaknesses lie.
The alliance launched its Creative Health Quality Framework in September, which aims to articulate what constitutes “good” for those working within the context of creative health. One goal of the alliance is to help people organising health and wellbeing programmes to do the work safely.
“In the past, we would see organisations and individuals getting involved, perhaps without the necessary knowledge,” says Chatterjee. “You should work directly with a partner who has a deep understanding of whatever aspect of health and wellbeing you’re looking to deliver, which includes people with lived experience.”
By working in this collaborative manner, possible risks can be mitigated, including undue emotional strain on staff.
Charlotte Morgan, head of museums, development and partnerships at Cornwall Museums Partnership, says its museum sites can be difficult for the public to reach because of a lack of public transport. As a result, several programmes have taken place offsite.
“Utilising existing services, such as Wadebridge Memory Cafe or dementia organisation Memory Matters, has meant we’re able to reach those communities in places and settings that are familiar to them,” says Morgan.
Protecting staff wellbeing
For Michelle Kindleysides, head of health and wellbeing at Beamish, The Living Museum of the North, working with clinical teams has been essential, not only in providing a rich and varied community programme, but in protecting staff wellbeing.
“I was nearing a crisis point at work, because I was dealing with dementia in my family, as well as leading groups at the museum,” she says. “It was all too close to home. I asked for help in the form of clinical supervision, and now my colleague and I meet with a supervisor once a month to receive counselling and support.”
The museum also employed another counsellor to meet with volunteers to discuss bereavement and anticipatory grief, which might be triggered in sessions. “We are looking after them, which also help us to look after the participants,” says Kindleysides.
Individuals delivering this work can find it hard to take time off, as they might be the only ones with the expertise to deliver a session and don’t want to let people down.
The impact of logistical moves or museum maintenance on a community wellbeing group might also be overlooked or misunderstood.
Kindleysides believes that while health and wellbeing work is valued by museums, greater understanding of the work that goes into a successful programme is needed.
“I don’t think there’s an understanding of the emotional and mental labour that goes into all these groups,” says Kindleysides.
Cornwall Museums Partnership has run the Inclusive Collections Network – which is attended by about 22 museum professionals in Cornwall – to explore, test and collectively problem solve challenges around sensitive storytelling and collections across institutions.
Morgan says that while preparing for programmes and workshops is crucial, evaluating and offering extra support after a session is equally significant. For example, a collaboration with consultancy Museum X and Black Voices Cornwall, which supports anti-racist work in cultural organisations, that explored Black history in Cornwall’s archives included a half-day workshop.
“It was vital that we brought in additional expertise to help us and the participants process the workshop,” Morgan says.
Cornwall Museums Partnership worked with Malcolm Phillips of Kawaida Therapy, who ran an optional session helping participants process the impact the workshop had on them, which was followed by a creative activity led by Sandra Shakespeare of Museum X.
Jean Campbell, an expert in the trans-Atlantic slave trade and anti-racism for museums, was also brought in to help the project team understand their feelings and equip them with the skills and language to continue the work sensitively and appropriately.
“These experts were vital to the eventual success of our work together,” says Morgan. “Without their input, we would have struggled to recognise the next steps.”
Putting participants first
Gareth Redstone, chief executive of Manchester Jewish Museum, says one of the most important aspects of delivering a wellbeing programme is listening to what people want and responding to their needs. He says this can lead to the sessions feeling more collaborative, open and relaxed.
Sian Booth, the cultural services manager at Mansfield District Council, also puts people’s wellbeing at the heart of her organisation’s programmes.
“If arts organisations and museums act in a way that is well intentioned but not highly skilled, then we could do more damage than good when working with vulnerable groups,” she says. “Sometimes, it’s also about accepting we can’t reach a milestone or won’t have many sessions because it’s not right for the group. By making those deliberate decisions, we put participants’ wellbeing before a specific outcome.”
A prime example is the decision to close the museum to the public one day a week to prioritise “behind-closed-doors” activities for vulnerable people.
The standard tools used to demonstrate the programmes’ value also had to be re-evaluated.
“It’s not about what we want,” says Booth. “To protect people at risk, we’ve had to turn away well-meaning journalists, or make sure not to take photos of particular sessions, to protect people at risk.”
In difficult economic times, Booth regards the role of the museum as an “additional social service”. While this is challenging, she says it has been a wonderful journey for Mansfield, with its strong connections with local services and community organisers.
“[As a local authority museum] we are at the frontline of what our residents need,” she says. “We know where the food clubs are, or how to contact the council about mould. Right now, we have a swap shop at Mansfield Museum for winter coats, shoes and toys. People can come and access what they need. We’re like a community centre with a collection.”