This year, International Museum Day (May 18th) has fallen at the same time as UK Mental Health Awareness Week. Although the focus of Awareness Week is quite specific this year (Body Image), I think it is still important to discuss all mental health issues at this time, where more exposure is given to such issues. I’d like to address both Mental Health and my appreciation for museums this International Museum Day by reflecting on how my involvement with museums has improved my mental health and wellbeing.
As A Visitor:
Before I was involved with volunteer work and an academic career that involved museums, I benefitted from exposure to the Arts and Heritage sector as a visitor. I have been visiting museums since a very young age, and as a small child, museum visits often took place on weekends with my siblings and my Dad – who, at the time, was working extremely long days in a financial role to support our family whilst my Mum was training to be a teacher. Often, my weekend trips to museums, parks and events would be the only moments where I got to spend quality time with my Dad. They engaged me intellectually and emotionally – I was a very sensitive child, and took a lot from museums and galleries, which gave me so much material to connect with and think about – and my Dad seemed to love witnessing and being a part of that.
Some of my favourite places were – and still are – museums. Museums can be loud, exciting and stimulating, but they can also be quiet places of reflection. When the real world of the here and now gets a bit too much, museums offer a refuge where you can distance yourself. Even objects taken from the same here and the same now possess a detached quality when placed in a museum; they become objects you can analyse and think about; they are artefacts. Meanwhile, objects from the distant past carry an ethereality, and an ephemerality, in spite of their age; they seem other-worldly, intriguing, and amazing.
And, beyond the intellectual stimulation and distancing that museums create, they have also benefitted my mental health and wellbeing in very simple ways. When I visit museums, my step-count goes through the roof, and I exercise without really feeling it. In my reflective state, my breathing is controlled. I am very much in touch with the things around me, feeling grounded and mindful. When I am at a museum, I am having fun, and I smile.
As a professional:
As I highlighted in my first blog post, working in a museum gives me a sense of purpose. Beyond that, however, there are genuinely so many benefits to working in a museum as far as mental health is concerned:
- Social engagement, with the public and with collegues; people are interested, and intersting! Interacting with other people who are likely as keen to hear about the museum as you are to tell them is a joy, and social contact is super for encouraging good mental health.
- Getting creative, using arts and crafts to help children and adults engage with a museum, is awesome. Whoever says cutting and sticking is for infants is frankly just… well, wrong. Cutting and stick, and colouring, and painting, and doodling, and flower-making, and pot-decorating… these are all really relaxing things to do, as well as really heart-warming things to help others do too.
- Being organised, or at least forcing yourself to be organised, is vital. On bad mental health days, it can be really difficult to find the motivation to do anything, so having a fixed time and place to be really helps with feeling like you have things under control.
- The museum community is so supportive. In #MuseumHour – a twitter phenomenon where people come together from the museum sector to discuss topically issues online for an hour a week – has prompted so much warmth and comfort; sometimes, knowing you’re not alone in your concerns and struggles – whether related to finding a job or coping with issues at work – is all that is needed. IRL, the museum workforce is also incredibly encouraging. I may be biased, but I think museum workers might be the best out there!
- Working – and looking to work – in the museum sector creates resilience. I know there are many jobs out there that make people stronger than when they stepped in the front door, but in museum jobs, there are so many pressures, and often very small teams fighting them. Work can be unpaid, inconvenient, or simply non-existent at times. It’s an incredibly popular and competitive sector, and job-hunting is sometimes soul-crushing… but it makes you stronger, and even in the early stages of my Arts and Heritage career, I am noticing changes in my resilience, for the better.
I am so happy to have museums in my life. Yes, that is such a sappy thing to say, but it’s true. I am a happier, healthier person because of my involvement and engagement with museums. It’s important to have a passion, and it’s important to have a purpose. But it’s vital to be well. And anything that promotes your wellness can’t be a bad thing, in my book.