Could Museums Improve Young People’s Wellbeing
Insights from a workshop
(peer-reviewed by Mia Riedel)
Do you love visiting museums? I really do! I believe they are the perfect place to endure cold, dark and long winter days. You can tour around the galleries for hours, make some sketches and potentially even touch some historical objects. Furthermore, museums can widen your horizons as you can learn so many things. However, as a psychology geek and a young adult, museums interest me from another perspective. I am curious about the potential of museums in improving young people’s mental health and wellbeing.
In the context of arts and health research, engagement with arts is categorized into five domains: performing arts (e.g., music, dance); visual arts (e.g., sculpture, painting); literature (e.g., writing, reading); culture (e.g., visiting museums, going to festivals); and digital arts (e.g., filmmaking) (Fancourt & Finn, 2019). Compared to certain types of arts such as performing or visual arts, museums are not that readily investigated (Fancourt & Finn, 2019). Furthermore, most of the museum-based projects focus on wellbeing of older adults and older adults with dementia (Desmarais et al., 2018). Museum-based programmes were shown to increase self-esteem, reduce social isolation and contribute to meaning-making among older adults as they provide a space for social interactions, development of new skills and calming experiences (Thomson et al., 2018). Additionally, museum attendance was found to reduce cognitive decline and depression among older adults with dementia (Daykin, 2019). These findings suggest that museums have the potential to improve the wellbeing of older adults. But what about young people? Could museums foster young people’s wellbeing, too? The answer to this question is waiting to be explored. Given my strong interest in the topic, I was so excited to hear that I had a possibility to work with the Wallace Collection, a museum in London, within the frame of the EMPOWER Islington project, in which I work as a research assistant.
EMPOWER Islington (‘Co-Creating Employment, Education and Psychological Wellbeing Workshops with Youth of Islington’) is a collaboration between Islington Council and UCL, which is led by Dr Keri Wong and funded by the UKRI Research Council. The aim of the project is to understand the needs of young people (14-25yo) from ethnic minority backgrounds after Covid-19 as they were disproportionately affected (Wong & Raine, 2020) and to then co-create five engaging life skills and mental health workshops with young people to address their needs. As a result of our interviews with young people, we learned that young people were looking for alternative ways to cope with their emotions. Based on this, we co-created a workshop with the aim of introducing young people to the potential of creative arts in improving their mental health and wellbeing.
After a lot of brainstorming, emails and chats with Holly Power, Community Learning Producer at Wallace Collection, we planned a workshop for young people to engage with art and explore its positive effects on wellbeing while empowering them to visit museums. The workshop had three parts. The first part included a tour around the beautiful Wallace Collection with a focus on four pieces, guided by freelance artist and educator Lucy Ribeiro. Then, we explored the exclusive miniature wax sculptures of the Collection with Holly and made our own miniature wax sculptures to take home. In the final part, we listened to a live concert by cellist Davina Shum who is also a journalist and an award-winning podcast host. We also discussed how music was important for Davina to cope with the pandemic and other stressors in her life.
In the next paragraphs, I would like to share some practical exercises that were part of the workshop. Although these exercises were initiated by pieces from the museum, they can be done with anything and anywhere.
After picking up our own tools and sketch pads, we started our workshop. During our tour around the galleries, we practised something called slow looking: focusing on specific pieces that caught our attention instead of trying to see everything in a museum, as this could sometimes feel overwhelming. While planning the workshop with Holly, we had chosen four pieces to look at more closely, and we made a stop at each of them to more intensely interact with them. It was a new experience for me because I was one of those people willing to see everything in a museum even though some of the pieces weren't of particular interest to me. I believe I used to have FOMO (fear of missing out) in museums. Now that I am aware of slow-looking, I will try this new approach next time I visit a museum.
Your Own Interpretation
During the tour, Lucy sparked a conversation about the artwork in front of each piece and encouraged us to interpret it in our own ways. She emphasized that there were no right or wrong answers and that there was no need to be an expert to enjoy or comment on art. Young people attending our workshop, including myself, really enjoyed that. I used to force myself to read every explanation about each piece or to learn a lot of information about them before visiting a museum. Her approach freed me from that pressure by showing me and hopefully other young people too, that it is possible to enjoy an artwork without extensive knowledge about it by only focusing on what catches our attention and the feelings it evokes.
Drawing Techniques: One-Line Drawing & Shadowing
Throughout the tour, Lucy also showed us two drawing techniques, which I found particularly useful for coping with my emotions. The first one was called one-line drawing: drawing a line without lifting one’s hand. We tried this exercise in front of a landscape piece where we tried to draw the whole painting or parts of it and repeated the same exercise with our non-dominant hand. It was particularly interesting for me because I used to believe that to be able to benefit from the potential of arts in improving wellbeing, one needed to be talented in arts. However, just trying to draw a painting without lifting my hand or using my non-dominant hand removed the pressure to draw perfectly. I could use this exercise simply to calm down myself without having to be an artist.
The other exercise was called shadowing. In shadowing, one creates different shades by changing how much pressure one applies with the pen onto the paper. If you pressure your hand too much, you get darker shades and vice versa. We combined this exercise with one-line drawing and tried to re-create a female portrait we chose from the gallery. I found this exercise to be quite useful for moments where I felt intense emotions such as frustration and I needed to calm myself down. I felt that I could do shadowing until I get lighter and lighter shades.
With this opportunity, I had a glimpse of how museums could potentially improve young people’s wellbeing and I could actually experience it firsthand. If you would like to learn more about the workshop and what young people have to say about it, you can find it here!
Fancourt, D. & Finn, S. (2019). What is the evidence on the role of the arts in improving health and well-being? A scoping review. World Health Organization (WHO).
Thomson, L. J., Locker, B., Camic, P. M. & Chatterjee, H. J. (2018). Effects of a museum-based social prescription intervention on quantitative measures of psychological wellbeing in older adults. Perspective in Public Health, 138(1), 28-38.
Daykin, N. (2019). Arts, health and wellbeing: A critical perspective on research, policy and practice. Routledge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780429356049
Wong, K. K. & Raine, A (2020). Covid19: Global social trust and mental health study. https://doi.org/10.17605/OSF.IO/FE8Q7
Lackoi, K., Patsou, M., and Chatterjee, H.J. et al. (2016) Museums for Health and Wellbeing. A Preliminary Report, National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing. https://museumsandwellbeingalliance.wordpress.com