Category Archives: Meanings

Destruction and preservation in museums

Myna Trustram writes…

To further pick up on David’s post, ‘Honesty and illusion in museums’: I think that one of the things we do to shelter ourselves from the reality of death is to run museums.

You might say then that the display of decaying animals in the Exploratorium in San Francisco is a defiance of this. Or that the museum is a dogged defiance of destruction which plays a far greater role in natural and human life on our planet than preservation.

The Journal of Material Culture in 2003 (Vol 8 (3)) was a special issue, about ephemerality. Using anthropological examples from around the world it shifts the focus from objects as fixed cultural property to considering them as objects and agents of transformation. More relevant to this blog perhaps than the anthropological examples from the 2003 volume is Caitlin DeSilvey’s article ‘Observed Decay: Telling stories with mutable things’ also in the Journal of Material Culture (2006, 11). (Thanks to Hannah Chalk for pointing me towards this.)

DeSilvey spent a few years poking around in the domestic and agricultural rubble of a derelict homestead in Montana. She tracks the cultural and natural residues of the human and non-human inhabitants. She suggests that degradation of an artefact adds another level of meaning to it which museums’ conservation procedures can eradicate: ‘…decay reveals itself not (only) as erasure but as a process that can be generative of a different kind of knowledge’ (p.323).

Finally, Sam Taylor-Wood’s video Still Life (2001) shows a bowl of fruit gradually decaying with a plastic biro staying exactly as it is. You can see it on You Tube.

In terms of museum practice it seems unlikely that many museums are going to start showing decaying objects. But what they do have is a lot of worn and broken objects which tend to be hidden in stores.

The Mary Greg Collection at Manchester Art Gallery is a collection of domestic artefacts some of which show signs of use, for example, a worn down wooden spoon. Participants in a programme of research and interpretation of the collection were drawn towards the objects which have clear evidence of use. They were dismayed when conservators replaced the head on a zebra from a set of Noah’s Ark animals ‘at once removing all trace of the narrative we originally cherished’. See the Mary Mary Quite Contrary Blog.


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Peace, Love, and Understanding

Living Worlds at The Manchester Museum has been open since April, and I wanted to talk briefly about the gallery.

In many ways, Living Worlds embodies what NLOB is all about; the changing contexts in which we can see natural science collections. Except in this case, it’s not just about looking to the past, it’s also about looking at the future. But I want to focus on one specific, personal, experience of the space.

When I first entered the space, just before the public opening, I formed a number of initial opinions. Being fairly traditionalist, I was initially drawn to quite conventional displays like Bodies, and Humans.

The 'Bodies' case

The 'Humans' case

But a more unusual display, like Peace, produced a more negative reaction. I wouldn’t say I disliked it, but I certainly didn’t find it appealing.

The 'Peace' case

Then a funny thing happened. As the preview got into full swing, I found myself ‘trapped’ by that case. Not in an unpleasant way, it just so happened I bumped into old friends and colleagues, and stayed there chatting. I think we were there about 45 minutes, and as time passed, I went on a journey with that case. My feelings about it, my relationship with it, changed.

While initially I’d been put off by the lack of ‘real’ museum objects, I started to see how this highlighted the message of the case, the story it told. The longer I was there, the more I thought about that message. I started to see the value of it. I started to consider my own reactions, my own preconceptions. I became ‘okay’ with the display. Then I started to quite like it. By the time I left, I loved it.

So there’s a clear message here to museums. It’s worth thinking about the messages we can convey. Less can be more. Encouraging ‘dwell time’ by cases is not a vice. Taking risks can produce rewards. Oh, and there’s nothing funny about peace, love, or understanding!

Another view of the 'Peace' case

Next week we have another take on the Living Worlds gallery. Work experience student James Lever has written a blog post about his personal opinions of the new gallery. That’ll be up on the 22nd August.



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Health Rocks at The Manchester Museum

Hello I’m David Gelsthorpe, the Curator of Earth Science Collections at The Manchester Museum. I’ve been asked to tell you a bit about the great project we’ve been involved in with START called Health Rocks.

Wendy Teal and START approached us to see if we’d like to work on a project using fossils, rocks and minerals to help promote mental health and wellbeing. We naturally jumped at the chance, any excuse to use the collection in new and exciting ways!

Fossil sea floor, 430 million years old

Over a series of workshops we showed the participants some of our favourite objects. These were then used as inspiration for artworks and creative writing. I love these activities as they really open your mind to looking at beautiful shapes and colours.

A selection of activities have been pulled together in a gallery trail and display in the fossils gallery.

Health Rocks: amber and artwork

It was really inspiring what difference the project made to the participants.

I’m delighted to say we are currently working on a new web-based project on mental health and wellbeing which will include a virtual museum… watch this space!

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Say it with…

Leisa Gray, Community Development Manager for Manchester Art Gallery writes…

Say it with was an arts and well-being course with the theme of Flowers. It ran for 12 weekly sessions and involved participants from Start Manchester (part of Manchester Mental Health and Social Care Trust) and Out in the City (an LGBT support group for older adults run by Age Concern).

Paintings and ceramic tiles from Manchester Art Gallery’s collection were used for inspiration and the group took part in 2 sessions at Manchester Museum’s Herbarium, where they looked at botanical specimens and spoke with the Curator of Botany about the medicinal properties of flowers.

Whilst at the Herbarium people worked with a visual artist, who led them in drawing and painting activities, using the collections as the basis for still life studies.  They also worked with a poet who helped people write their own poems in response to collections, using a variety of poetry techniques, one of which involved using botany books at the Herbarium to “steal” bits of text and then re-work it.

The Occupational Therapist from Start was involved and led participants in “mindfulness” exercises that helped them to really look at plants and flowers. I think this practice relates well to museum and gallery collections which can draw people in to focus on one object or exhibit.  Practising noticing or “seeing the world anew” is something that is recognised as beneficial to mental wellbeing (is listed as one of the NEF’s 5 ways to wellbeing) and I think those of us working with collections could make more of this idea when working with health partners.

There was a lot packed in to Say it with, which at times was challenging for participants and facilitators, but overall the diversity of techniques, plus the different venues seemed to contribute to people’s overall experience and enjoyment of it.  Participants loved visiting the Herbarium and talked about it with a sense of privilege as though they were being given access to a secret world.

The decision to create a mixed group of mental health service users and non-mental health service users was a deliberate attempt to offer an art course that was also a social opportunity, particularly for those who might feel anxious in social situations. Start feel this approach can help their students move from the healthcare setting towards mainstream opportunities and overcome fears around meeting and interacting with new people. For the Gallery working in this way represented an opportunity to offer an in-depth learning experience to a wider audience.

Everyone made a ceramic plaque featuring an impressed flower image alongside a poem about that flower.  These artworks directly referenced the pressed pages of botanical specimens that people had seen at the Herbarium.  They were displayed as one installation at the gallery.  Working towards a display of work helped unite the group and for some it created a “positive pressure”. Those involved gained an understanding of the artistic process, seeing ideas explored, developed and captured as a tangible finished product. This helped people develop skills, but also gave insight into the idea that working at something, stage by stage, makes transformation possible. This understanding is in itself a skill that can be made use of in other areas of life.

The Warwick – Edinburgh Mental Well-being Scale (WEMWBS)6, which is used for assessing positive mental health was used at the start and at the end of the course. 10 out of 12 participants completed both and comparing their average scores showed a 16% improvement in well-being.

Say it with left participants feeling they had achieved something positive and had been invested in. It helped them feel more at home in the gallery, gave them a range of transferable skills and expanded their social horizons. It encouraged people to connect with others, keep learning and take notice of the world around them. It provides a positive example of how culture and creativity can enrich lives; help people feel good and less socially marginalised.

“I was really nervous and quiet at the beginning, but as time went on I felt more confident and I’ve enjoyed it a lot.”

“I felt energised by being in good company.”

“My confidence and self esteem have improved and I’m proud of what we’ve done.”

“I now can appreciate a little more how intricate the process of getting to a finished product is. I hadn’t realised how much patience I possessed!”

“We’ve been given some extraordinary opportunities to experiment with a wide range of techniques and ideas.”

“My ability to manipulate art and materials means that I can make things change.”

 “I know I look at plants differently now.”

“I intend to do more creative writing and visit more art venues and look at art in a different way.”

– participant comments

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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


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Nature and the Sense of Self

Myna Trustram, Research Manager, Manchester City Galleries (Renaissance) writes…


Some of you will know about the Who Cares? Museums, Health and Wellbeing programme that Renaissance NW has been running for the last two years.  The six members of the NW museum hub ran projects with health partners which sought to use their collections to assist health and wellbeing.  The partners came from NHS clinics, community groups, day care centres and so on.  We commissioned the Psychosocial Research Unit at the University of  Central Lancashire to do research about the impact and the methods of the work.

One of their findings is about the effect on a person’s sense of themselves when they make a close attachment to an object from the public collections of the museum.  It can reduce a sense of social isolation (both a cause and effect of mental ill health) because contact is made with socially owned objects.  One feels more included.

The findings have made us think about the public  nature of museum collections and how they can help to improve public  health.

Why am I telling you this?  Because of all the collections in museums, you might argue that natural science collections are the most public.  The mammals, birds, insects and geology belonged to no one before they were collected.  They are the public heritage.  I wonder what effect making a connection with the natural heritage might have on a person’s sense of their place in the world?


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Who Cares? Natural science and health and wellbeing

The NLOB blog has been quiet for a while, but that will be changing. First up, we have a series of blog posts by guest authors looking at the recent Who Cares? research, with an emphasis on how natural science collections can feed into this work. We’ll have new posts the next four Mondays, starting on the 4th July. So please subscribe, read the posts, and comment on them.

If you want to read the Who Cares? report, it’s available here:

Who Cares? report

David Craven


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