Landscapes of the Mind conference at The Lightbox 2013 – Report
Happy Museum Project – Landscapes of the Mind: The Art of Wellbeing conference, 28/06/13
The conference discussed the thinking behind the Happy Museums Project, described its progress, and went through some of the evidence supporting its philosophy, and successes seen in similar projects. The first speaker was Professor Paul Camic, who I missed due to having to attend a meeting elsewhere before the session started. According to the programme he discussed why museums and galleries hold promise as bolsterers of mental and social wellbeing, including the fact that they are a feature of most urban areas throughout the country, and therefore represent communities as well offering insight into the minds of individuals. I arrived toward the end of his Q&A session, and caught a piece of information about the NHS in Bristol looking within their own staff for people who kept creative hobbies, and examining ways in which this could be put to use in treating their patients.
Hilary Jennings then gave a talk putting the HMP in a broad context, involving the rising consciousness about the environment and the effect humankind has on it in the scientific age, and the burgeoning ideas of not measuring the success of a society simply in terms of GDP, which has been the norm, but through taking into account other factors such as equality and general mental wellbeing, as exemplified by Bhutan’s GNH index. Hilary pointed out that museums are seen as good ambassadors for this way of thinking, as they tend to have motives going beyond profit, and function on social ideas like preservation and maintenance. She went on to look at the progress made by the HMP and what has been learned, including the suggestions that its greatest impact can be seen on individuals rather than organisations; that its ideas are best spread outward through a network model instead of relying on the trickle-down of a hierarchy; and that it has proven difficult to impress upon people the link between sustainability and wellbeing.
Leisa Gray and Linda Thompson presented, respectively, a case study and psychological research that support the theorising behind the HMP. Leisa Gray is involved with a social project based in Kirklees called Culture Club, which arranges cultural trips for over-55s and absorbs for them some of the costs incurred. While it is generally accepted that taking part in creative activities significantly improves both mental and physical wellbeing, Culture Club is inspired by research which suggests that merely attending cultural events and centres can have a beneficial effect in the same areas. Frequent attendance of art galleries and theatrical and musical events seems to have a positive effect on longevity, and even reduce the likelihood of developing cancer. Leisa also mentioned statistics which suggest that social isolation is more damaging than smoking and that 10% of over-65s can be classified as chronically lonely; and furthermore described an experiment that, through measuring cortisol levels in saliva, showed stress levels in City workers significantly decreasing after half an hour in an art gallery. Linda took us through a project conducted by the psychological department at UCL that attempted to develop a way of measuring how experiences with cultural heritage constituted a therapeutic activity: after object-handling, subjects were asked to self-assess their condition through giving a value for positive and negative attributes (for example alertness or anxiety). Although the usual problems of efficacy in measuring this type of thing were present (and readily admitted), the results consistently suggested a marked improvement in wellbeing after the experience.
Between these two talks, Rib Davis, who works at the Lightbox, introduced a project (Landscapes of the Mind) conducted there which had engaged people suffering from mental health issues in creative activities inspired by existing artworks, and a couple of those people were present to discuss their experience, which was a very positive one. Rib stated that the aim of his presentation was to note that while what Leisa had said about cultural attendance may be true, the value of cultural participation should not be forgotten, and nor should the unique position of museums to provide opportunities for this.
Issues that were repeatedly raised during the Q&As and evaluation included: the difficulty in presenting statistical proof of the benefits museums can bring to health, the importance such proof holds in convincing “the powers that be” to OK projects and provide funding, and the consequent value of finding a way to produce this evidence; and that it is important not to get too distracted by the benefits museums can bring to those suffering from medical problems at the expense of the general benefits they bring to society as a whole. One point brought up was that there is a wealth of evidence for the benefits of cultural experience provided by neuroscience, which can be presented in the statistical style valued by bureaucrats, but which (apart from the mention of the cortisol study) wasn’t really addressed in this conference. Another important recurring point was that even cultural experiences based around ‘negative’ aspects of culture, such as war or historical injustices, still seem to have a beneficial effect on people; I thought this was well worth noting and suggests that the value of experiences such as these lie in provoking thought rather than soothing a person with beauty.
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Tom Stannard – Volunteer at The Cinema Museum