Short-term box-ticking projects do not change lives - Museums Association

Short-term box-ticking projects do not change lives

Five years ago the education department at Dulwich Picture Gallery became concerned about the poor standards of care for the …
Gillian Wolfe
Five years ago the education department at Dulwich Picture Gallery became concerned about the poor standards of care for the elderly and wondered what we as a fine art museum could do about it.

It was never in question that we should do something. Community engagement has been a passion for the past 20 years, and serving challenging audiences across south London has always been a priority.

Initially we spent nine months researching how best to address the needs of the elderly, working with Age Concern, Help the Aged, care homes and community groups to establish partnerships, put together a specialist team an  Ωd initiate a year-long pilot scheme; it was a necessary learning curve.

Good Times: Art for Older People was an immediate success and the programme exposed a huge need. It runs all-year round; it is not an “add-on” and it is just one important aspect of our core offer to the public. Short-term “box-ticking” programmes do not change lives. To be effective, social programmes need to be regular, consistent and long-term.

Art on Remand, our programme for young males in custody, ran weekly for nine years. Similarly, Art for the Unemployed ran for ten years. Urban Youth, our current programme for inner-city adolescents, is in its eighth year.

When we launched Good Times we wanted to establish answers to some questions. What is the hand-eye coordination capability of older people for physical art activities? What difference does gender make? What difference does ethnicity make and does this give rise to different creative needs? Do older people prefer to be with their own peer group or with younger people?

What difference could our programme make to isolated elderly people not in good health? What could we do for those living with dementia? By which methods could we make learning enriching and pleasurable for the elderly – especially those not predisposed to visit an art gallery?

These last questions led us to develop Prescription for Art. For the past two years we have worked in partnership with local GP practices to identify those older people feeling lonely and isolated. When further medication is not the answer, the practice nurse offers a “prescription” to come to one of our twice-monthly creative arts workshops.

These workshops are always a social event with refreshments served in a studio environment designed to look appealing. The workshops are oversubscribed, so great is the need. Participants’ comments say it all: “I feel alive again, not just vegetating” or: “I thought I’d never use my brain again.”

A report on Good Times by the Oxford Institute of Ageing will be published in the autumn. Our great hope is to find the funds to develop it as an evidence-gathering research project. Whereas the huge benefits arising from this programme are perfectly obvious to us, the health benefits need to be properly endorsed by medical evidence.

For the first time, there are more people over 60 years old than there are children under 16 in the UK. Every day, 32 people die alone and unnoticed; 10 per cent of city dwellers are pensioners on low incomes; seventeen per cent say that they have no weekly contact with others and 25 per cent have no best friends. Loneliness and isolation cripple lives.

Museums as treasure houses are well placed to review their relationship with society by proactively and constantly engaging with the elderly in ways that will significantly enrich lives.

Gillian Wolfe is the director, learning and public affairs, at the Dulwich Picture Gallery, London

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