Readers of this blog will be aware of a growing interest in how museum collections can be used to aid health and wellbeing. The New Light on Old Bones research is pointing to how nature was woven into people’s physical, spiritual and intellectual wellbeing. It suggests that the development of the museums at Blackburn and Rossendale was linked with a love of natural objects and the countryside, and a sense of their health giving powers. Mark Steadman uses the Yardley family archive to illustrate this. All this is set against the background of industrialisation. (As an aside, we need to be wary of creating simple extremes of nature is good and healthy, industry is bad and unhealthy.)
The Yardley family might have been surprised at a story I heard recently. A hospital asked a museum if it could have some natural science objects for display in an oncology clinic waiting area. But they specifically said they didn’t want any birds because birds are commonly considered to be omens of death (they fly on currents of air much like spirits).
In contrast to this caution, gynaecological patients in a UCL hospital have handled an Egyptian fertility amulet with apparently valuable therapeutic effects.
Museums today can take on this relatively new agenda of health and wellbeing at many different levels. Manchester Art Gallery for instance has a wellbeing trail which encourages people to look at works of art which are beautiful or inspiring. Museum collections can also be used to dig down into darker levels of painful experience. The containment of the museum can help people to explore elements of their experience which otherwise remain closed to them. With skilled professional support this can be truly therapeutic.
Museums exhibit aspects of life which are normally hidden or denied – just think of the dead bodies, violence and nudity that they contain. There’s something about the containing nature of a gallery which enables the transgression of boundaries of what is normally acceptable. I suspect there is great potential here for assisting people to explore their own transgressive behaviour.
The key ingredient though is not the objects but the human relationships which make the exploration of disturbing emotions possible.
If birds (and other dead animals, including humans) are welcome in museums, why not in hospitals? In other words, what is it about a museum which makes the display of remains acceptable?