A project at Calke Abbey is exploring the role the arts and heritage can play in combating loneliness and social isolation. Image (c) National Trust, Rupert Truman

Arts can play a major role in tackling social isolation

Caroline Parry, Issue 119/01, 01.01.2019
The government’s new strategy for addressing loneliness highlights that engagement with creative practice can help people become more connected. Caroline Parry reports
The culture sector has a significant role to play in addressing social isolation, according to the government’s strategy for tackling loneliness, which was published in October.
It makes a clear case that engagement with the arts, museums and creative practice helps people become more connected, and highlights existing work by Arts Council England to support and develop cultural practitioners looking to work in health and wellbeing.  

The strategy is part of a broader discussion that has opened up about loneliness and social isolation. But cultural organisations have so far been largely absent from the conversation, according to Suzanne MacLeod, a professor of museum studies at the University of Leicester’s Research Centre for Museums and Galleries (RCMG).  

“Not much museum thinking or practice deals with the issue of loneliness head on,” MacLeod says. This is shown by the sector being overlooked in a recent action plan published by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, says MacLeod.  

But several museum programmes have started to address the issue in greater depth.

Exploring heritage’s role

An ambitious research project at Derbyshire’s Calke Abbey aims to challenge the stigma surrounding loneliness and social isolation, and explore the role heritage, culture and arts should play in combating the issue.  

The project has been inspired by the 200th anniversary of the death  of Henry Harpur Crewe, the seventh baronet of Calke, a pathologically shy man who withdrew from society and became known as the “isolated baronet”. Crewe’s descendants went on to develop a reputation as isolated eccentrics.

The National Trust-owned property approached the RCMG to work on a research project, Isolation and Loneliness: Opening up New Stories and Interpretive Experiences at Calke Abbey. It intended to help Calke revisit its own history, while contributing to the contemporary debate.

The two-stage project has been running since October 2017. The first stage, which ended in March 2018, developed a framework for programming at Calke around the theme of loneliness and isolation. This included creating new community relationships, overhauling the on-site interpretation and visitor experience, and creating a legacy that could be built on.

This second stage, which began in July last year and runs until June, puts that framework in action, including developing “interpretive interventions” that disrupt the visit, for example, by encouraging people to send a postcard from Calke to someone who would appreciate it. The team will carry out further research and development, including detailed analysis into the impact of the interventions on visitors.

Richard Sandell, a professor of museum studies at the University of Leicester, says: “The project aims to transform every aspect of the visit and interpretation at Calke. It cuts across every aspect of the site, including rearranging the furniture in the cafe to make it more social.”

Boosting inclusivity

Nicolette Hamilton, the manager of the Age Friendly Museums Network, says museums are already involved in valuable work  on social isolation and loneliness, but she believes work can be done to ensure activities and schemes are more inclusive. “We need to get outside organisations and community groups to see museums as a resource for them to use,” she adds.  

Meanwhile, Jo Crease, the chief executive at Brighton & Hove Impetus, a charity that works to reduce isolation to improve health and wellbeing, believes that more needs to be done to make museums accessible.  

“For our clients, mobility, confidence and cost are huge barriers to getting involved in almost any activity,” she says. “We are trying to get a project off the ground that enables our befriending pairs to get to museums or arts activities but, as usual, the challenge is funding.  

“While there is a huge willingness on the part of museums and galleries, they need to think differently about reaching people. Outreach is expensive, and to reach isolated people, you need to find people.”