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  • Can museums make you healthy?

    By Nicholas Vogelpoel, on 17 September 2012

    When I’m 93, I’d like to think that I could make crude jokes about the dentistry of a puma skull and consume as much orange tea cake as I’d like.

    The monthly coffee morning held at Age UK Camden’s offices at Tavis House saw twenty participants of our elderly community handling objects from UCL museums and collections.

    A chunk of malachite from our geological collections sparked a long conversation with a Colombian expatriate about her recollections of the emerald mining trade in her home country. I learned about her personal collection of emerald jewellery that she hopes to pass on to her children and grandchildren, and salivated as she gestured emphatically about the size of the pieces she owned (they were this big…). We talked about how proud she was of her jewellery, and of her country. As her smile grew and her pupils swelled, I realised that neither of us had uncovered any educational information about the malachite (not emerald) that she was holding. The distance from malachite to hot summer childhoods in Colombia might seem a stretch in usual museum outreach activities, but not in the Touching Heritage project.

    Sitting in a conference room in central London, the idea of beaches and oceans seems a long way away. While we discussed the tidal patterns seemingly etched into the edge of the malachite, each participant had a story to tell of the ocean. Collecting sea shells in Dorset, blue lips in Cornwall and fish and chips in Brighton were just some of the stories I heard. I must have looked nostalgic for the tropical beaches of my childhood because one of the women across the table reached over to touch my hand. She told me that any time I missed the ocean I could look at this beautiful rock and that I should feel lucky because my imagination was a gift that I could always turn to for boosting happiness reserves.

    Improving our health and wellbeing is something that we are encouraged to do more and more, particularly as we get older. But, how can handling museum objects, telling stories about them and remembering seaside holidays make us healthier? Making a sweeping statement about health improvement and indeed health evaluation is simple enough to do, but when we start to think about health and wellbeing as malleable commodities that can be improved and grown, then perhaps there is cause for evaluation.

    The Touching Heritage programme, funded by a Heritage Lottery Fund grant brings objects from University College London’s museums and collections to people for handling sessions who would otherwise be excluded from cultural activity because of their health status. Telling stories is just one way museum object handling can begin to impact on positive experiences of health and wellbeing.

    Which brings me back to the puma skull…

    Sharing our experiences of healthcare can help us to understand our own health status. When a 93 year old woman jokes about a puma needing dentures after handling a skull, we can begin to see how the two intersect. I know that I flossed more rigorously last night as a result of our conversation. And while it is true that my teeth will thank me in future years, the benefits to participants’ wellbeing can be found in other areas. The participant in question spoke of the privilege she felt at handling the skull, of the benefits of inclusion apparent in the coffee morning community, and of the importance of distraction in an increasingly medicalised experience of health maintenance and improvement, in her own life.

    We have known anecdotally for as long as they have existed, that museums have the potential to improve experiences of health and wellbeing. Indeed, aside from school excursions we wished we didn’t have to go on, the impulse to visit a museum and the experience of immersion in heritage has inherent wellbeing properties. We have the chance to reflect, to relax, to absorb and to connect with others. When we are excluded from attending museums because of perceived and/or real barriers to access, the benefits of museum experiences are made redundant. However, in our research in the Heritage and Healthcare sector, we have found that the link between touch-led exploration, creative engagement and health and wellbeing improvement can be experienced beyond museum walls.

    In a recently published article in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, researchers from Heritage in Healthcare have documented some of the benefits of object handling for patient populations. Lead researcher, Dr Helen Chatterjee notes that,

    ”What was clear is that the opportunity to handle real museum objects afforded advantages over simply looking at pictures of the same objects. The reason for this appears to be linked to the ability to touch and manipulate objects which are normally only allowed to be looked at in museum cabinets. Many patients expressed a feeling of privilege and used the objects to explore issues relevant to their everyday life, their illness and health status, suggesting that the objects help patients to make meaning out of their situation. If this is the case then the research indicates that heritage objects could have a significant role to play not only in enhancing patient wellbeing, happiness and distracting them from their clinical environment, but also as a tool for exploring the impact of their illness on their lives.”

    The Touching Heritage project will further some of these research interests by focusing on the experiences of volunteers facilitating object-handling sessions. In my experience, the benefits of conducting outreach activities are not restricted solely to the participants of the programme, but have added benefits to the facilitators themselves. And although it is not a common experience, I know I will never look at a puma skull the same way again.




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