Mindful Museums by Victoria Hunter
Growing social awareness of mental health and wellbeing has never been more prominent than now, in the current uncertain climate of Covid-19.
In recent years, it's been exciting to see the arts and heritage sector explore how to combine exhibitions and collections with wellbeing awareness, to support better mental health. Motivated by lockdown, this exploration is now rapidly becoming more defined, led by the "Mindful Museums" concept. Mindfulness is the technique of focusing on the present moment; according to Professor Mark Williams, former director of the Oxford Mindfulness Centre, mindfulness helps us "reconnect with the present moment [and] our thoughts and feelings as they happen", to become calmer and more self-aware.
Over the past four years, Manchester Art Gallery have developed their engagement programme with a focus on the unique way art supports wellbeing across audiences. Their "Mindful Museum" concept launched with an interactive mindfulness exhibition, And Breathe..., running throughout 2018/2019. Focused on "slowing down and connecting with art mindfully, moment by moment", the gallery worked with different communities to explore how its collections could support mental wellbeing, including "furniture, colour scheme, height of art works, text and a series of audio meditations [...] all carefully chosen in a way that we hope enhances wellbeing".
The success of And Breathe... across audiences showed the arts and heritage sector how beneficially mindfulness can be intertwined with exploring and appreciating collections. The "Mindful Museums" concept became more visible across the UK, with many galleries and heritage sites (including the National Gallery of Ireland, Canterbury Museums & Galleries, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery, and Shropshire Museums) developing their own mindfulness offers, celebrating the history of art and artefacts whilst also encouraging wider awareness of wellbeing – or, as Shropshire Museums observe, the importance of being encouraged "to look, to breathe and to be curious".
Manchester Art Gallery themselves aim to deliver a second mindfulness exhibition this year, Room to Breathe. However, whilst the current health crisis has put this exhibition on hold, they – along with museums and galleries across the UK – are still demonstrating the value of combining arts and heritage with mental health awareness. During such unprecedented times of national uncertainty and necessary self-isolation, it's been inspiring to see galleries and museums embracing the "Mindful Museums" ideology, adapting to offer online resources and collections that support individuals through anxiety, loneliness and stress via more remote methods.
Manchester Art Gallery's And Breathe... audio meditations are available online, alongside "lockdown" meditations inspired by other artworks in their collection; the National Gallery are offering "5-Minute Meditations" on their YouTube channel, "celebrating the creative possibilities of staying in, [supporting] mental wellbeing during lockdown"; while smaller heritage sites are also combining collections with mindfulness to encourage wellbeing and learning, such as Shrewsbury Museum's meditations around their historic artefacts, including a beautiful silver Roman mirror.
This transformative focus between arts, heritage and mindfulness – along with the necessary move towards more openly accessible, broad-ranging digital delivery – could change the future of how audiences engage with culture and, by extension, their own health, identity and wellbeing. As Manchester Art Gallery state, "the process begins in the gallery, but it doesn't end there; the practice of letting thoughts come and go while looking at a painting, without getting caught up or carried away by them, can be transferred to real life situations [...] mindfulness is both life-long and life-wide".
Covid-19 and lockdown have been challenging for all of us in different ways. It's given time for reflection about our priorities, our wellbeing, and the way we live our lives. Moving forwards, the hope is that the "Mindful Museums" concept – and its growing development across the arts and heritage sector – will carry on offering such fresh opportunities for this reflection, continuing to enhance wellbeing for all those who engage with them.
Living in Manchester, but originally from the West Midlands, Victoria Hunter is a Chartered Librarian and former journal editor for CILIP's Public & Mobile Libraries Committee. With a background in public and academic libraries, as well as heritage and retail sectors, her previous articles have featured in PMLG Access and Designing Libraries. Now working for the Open University, her professional interests lie in supporting social, educational, and health and wellbeing awareness across communities.