Can Collections Cure?

Wendy Teall, Start, Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust writes…

In our busy lives, visiting a museum or gallery can give us a breathing space in which curiosity, delight and wonder can take shape. Yet it seems  only recently that this sector has come to notice the therapeutic potential of its own practice.

This surprises me. Beautiful and interesting objects, the natural world, history and culture are obvious sources of mental health to me, but then I’m a mental health worker. In the past, I believe there was a disconnection between cultural institutions and their audiences; that the collections were the raison d’etre and visitors came to view them on the museum’s or gallery’s own terms.

But in our times, this outlook is shifting. Of course, galleries and museums are keen to impart learning, and they know that their spaces are viewed as restorative by some, but there is now a real and growing desire to understand how collections can contribute to wellbeing.

However, the cultural sector cannot undertake this journey alone, because they don’t have sufficient skills and knowledge as yet, so it makes sense to turn to partnerships. These might be hard to find, as the report from Renaissance North West relates (Who Cares? Museums, Health and Wellbeing 2011) – not all partnerships work, and not all have the right skills mix.

In Manchester we are lucky to have a cultural sector that seekshelp with wellbeing agendas and a specialist NHS service that can provide guidance. Start, the NHS service I manage, enables people to use arts and cultural activities specifically to build wellbeing, stress resilience and self-help skills. Our team is part of Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust, and  over the last 10 years we have worked in partnership with galleries and museums across the city  and the wider region to promote wellbeing connections.

Recently, Manchester Museum invited us to partner with them to put wellbeing on their museum map. We chose to use their fabulous minerals and fossils displays as our inspiration, and designed a project called Health Rocks. The project involved a mixed media arts course for the public based around this collection, which included art, observation, mindfulness* and natural history, and each participant produced a hand-made book of artwork that went on display in the minerals gallery. We also developed a wellbeing trail leaflet (©Start and Manchester Art Gallery) full of exercises that connect visitors in a unique way with the fossils and minerals. This is now in use at the museum and you can read more about it at where you can also download the wellbeing trail and watch Youtube films about the project.

Most excitingly, the Museum is now supporting Start to develop a virtual fossils and minerals wellbeing museum online, which will form part of a brand new website called Start2.

Start2 will be launched later this year and is designed to help people reconnect to their creative inner selves and build healthy, positive outlooks at the same time. Commissioned by the Department of Health, the site will offer interactive and downloadable activities including animation, music, creative writing and practical art.

The virtual museum will house 360 degree images of fossil and mineral samples with which visitors can interact, they can listen to curators’ talks, try art, music, creative writing and mindfulness exercises and build enthusiasm to visit real museums as a result.

Finding wellbeing connections in everyday life and the world around us is what this project is all about. Can collections cure? Maybe not, but if we work with them imaginatively, they can certainly help.

*Mindfulness, based on Buddhist meditation techniques, involves using the senses to develop an awareness of the present moment, as well as taking a non-evaluative and non-judgmental approach to your inner experience.

Read more about Start at

Read more about Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust at

Read more about five simple ways to help wellbeing at



Filed under Meanings, Museums, Objects

2 responses to “Can Collections Cure?

  1. As someone who suffers from a mental illness, I find creating art based around museum specimens really does make me feel calm and happy. I guess it’s because I am combining two of my favorite things- art and science.

  2. Pingback: Health Rocks at The Manchester Museum | New Light on Old Bones

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