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New findings show museums can make you healthy and happy.

By Helen J Chatterjee, on 17 October 2013

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There are now lots of examples of museums offering activities and programmes geared towards improving their audience’s health and wellbeing. From creative arts and museum object handling sessions through to talks, tours and knitting groups, museums offer a diverse array of ‘healthy’ activities. But what is the real impact of such activities on individual’s health and wellbeing?

Guy Noble from University College London Hospital and I have been collating, reviewing and analysing hundreds of projects, reports, publications and other evidence in our new book Museums, Health and Well-being, to find out if museums really can make you happier and healthier. The results are startling and impressive.

There is substantial anecdotal evidence regarding the value of museums-in-health, a new term coined in the book, and when considered along with the scholarly evidence it appears that museums benefit health and wellbeing in lots of ways, by providing:

• positive social experiences, leading to reduced social isolation
• opportunities for learning and acquiring news skills
• calming experiences, leading to decreased anxiety
• increased positive emotions, such as optimism, hope and enjoyment
• increased self-esteem and a sense of identity and community
• increased opportunities for meaning making
• positive distraction from clinical environments
• new experiences which may be novel, inspirational and meaningful
• increased communication between families, carers and health professionals

(Taken from Museums, Health and Well-being, Ashgate, 2013)

Our own research investigated the value of museum object handling sessions in hospitals and care homes. We used various clinical measures of quality of life, psychological and subjective wellbeing, along with analysis of conversations from the handling sessions. The results showed highly significant improvements in positive emotion, wellbeing and happiness, improvements in patients’ perceptions of their own health and optimism about the role of museum object handling as a distraction from ward life that impacts positively on relationships among staff, patients and their carers.

This is the first time that the full variety of work going on in museums, and all of the associated evidence, have been brought together to demonstrate the impact of museums-in-health. The book reveals that when considered altogether, there is now substantial support which is backed up by a robust evidence base.

And the good news doesn’t stop there. It is extremely timely to think about a new ‘public health’ role for museums. In 2012 the UK government introduced The Health and Social Care Act. The new Act is bringing about major changes to the way health and social care services will be delivered in the future. A key part of these health reforms sees a shift towards the idea that ‘prevention is better than cure’, within a framework which will require a multi-agency approach with an increased reliance on third sector organisations such as charities, voluntary and community organisations. Part of the reason for the health reforms is the realisation that individuals are living longer but with unhealthier lifestyles, with a significant increase in age- and lifestyle-related diseases, such as dementia and diabetes; this places added pressure on health services (including the NHS) and social services. It has also been shown that there is a ‘social gradient’ in relation to health, whereby individuals from poorer socio-economic backgrounds experience reduced health, wellbeing and social resilience.

With over 2500 museums in the UK alone, many of which are free, museums offer a largely untapped resource as places which can support public health. Museums, however, are very well placed to address issues such as social isolation, physical and mental ill-health and evidence discussed in our book suggests that museums can help to build social capital and resilience, and improve health and wellbeing.

Given the benefits described above from engaging in museums, it is easy to see how museums could fit into this new era of health commissioning. There are already lots of great examples of museums-in-health initiatives, as discussed in the book. Our findings show that several museums are targeting older adults, mental health service users, children with learning difficulties and promoting public health education.

We hope that before too long all museums will adapt their access plans to consider health and wellbeing benefits by targeting specific groups such as those people who are vulnerable, socially isolated, lonely or unemployed, older adults in care, and other health and social care service users such as people with physical or cognitive disabilities. If you are a museum and you want to benefit your community’s health and wellbeing check out Museums, Health and Well-being to find out how!

Author: Dr Helen Chatterjee is Head of Research and Teaching at UCL Museums and a Senior Lecturer in Biology at University College London. Guy Noble is Head of Arts at University College London NHS Foundation Trust.

Helen and Guy’s book Museums, Health and Well-being is published by Ashgate and is available now from http://www.ashgate.com/isbn/9781409425816

Visit the Touch and Wellbeing project website for further information about the research.

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