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!


Leave a comment

Filed under Meanings, Museums, Objects

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

Leave a comment

Filed under Meanings, Museums, Objects

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

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?


Leave a comment

Filed under Meanings, Museums, Objects

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


Filed under Meanings, Museums, Objects, The project

A passion for plants

Over the years, I’ve often been asked about the attitude of working men and women to science. There is a perception that in the 19th Century, the sciences were the preserve of the middle and upper classes. To an extent, this is true. To really pursue any science then, before “professional” science even existed, you had to have a decent income and plenty of free time. Ideal for the clergy, and local doctors, but not so much for millworkers. But this didn’t mean they couldn’t take an interest.

In the 19th Century, the population became more literate, and libraries began to appear, allowing the working classes access to scientific literature, manuals, and other materials. But was this opportunity taken up? Mark’s work, particularly at Rossendale, has suggested it was. But I’m always keen for first-hand sources.

I was talking to a friend about this, and they recalled a passage from a book called “A Cotton-Fibre Halo”. The book is an account, written in 1849, of the conditions for textile workers in Manchester and surrounding districts. The book was written by Angus Bethune Reach, a journalist. It was published as a series of articles in the Morning Chronicle between October 1849 and October 1850. Reach spent most of 1849 in with the millworkers, getting first-hand insight into their lives. In 1972, Chris Aspin of Helmshore Local History Society edited the articles into one text for publication. It was republished by Royd Press in 2007 (ISBN: 978-09556204-4-7).

Cotton-Fibre Halo (Royd Press 2007)

It’s a fabulous book, well worth a thorough read by anyone interested in the lives of millworkers in the mid-1800s. The book looks not only at life in the mill, but also at their homes, health, education, religion, self-improvement, and entertainment. With it being a first-hand account, it is worthy of real attention.

Among my favourite sections of the book, it looks at their reading habits. Unfortunately, far from the mass-consumption of scientific literature I was hoping for, cheap and tacky novels and romances seem to dominate the market. In that aspect, it seems little has changed in 160 years!

But the book contains one passage that really resonated, and was why it was recommended to me in the first place.

In truth the Manchester operative is amongst the most industrious and patient of citizens. He toils cheerfully, and is by day learning to read more, and to think more. If he has a turn for study, he devotes himself, in a few cases, to mechanical science – in the great number to botany. The science of plants is, indeed, a passion with the Manchester weaver. Every holiday sees hundreds of peaceful wanderers in the woods and fields around, busily engaged in culling specimens of grasses and flowers; while, generally harmless and industrious as the present generation are, there is good hope for expecting yet better things at the hands of their successors.

This passage is exactly the kind of first-hand information that fascinates me. The workers were indeed taking an active interest in natural history; in particular botany. What is particularly interesting, and this connects to some of Mark’s earlier posts, is that this was not just about getting out of the mills. It was not just a matter of an interesting hobby. The study of plants seemed to represent an opportunity for self-limprovement, and perhaps a route to a better standard of living. Because Botany connected to medicine, to dying, and to design, it presented multiple routes out of the mill. It’s a fascinating insight into the mind of the millworker.

There is so much more I’d love to quote from this book, but I’d far rather you all went and found a copy yourself. It’s a rewarding read. Although I should warn potential readers, Reach is not always complimentary. Towns like Bolton and Stockport do not come out of it in a good light!


Related posts:


Filed under Meanings, The project

An NLOB Easter egg…

I thought I’d quickly give all NLOB readers an Easter egg. Specifically, this scrimshawed Rhea egg from the collections at Rossendale Museum. They have a couple of painted eggs too, but I think the skill involved here is remarkable.

Scrimshaw egg

Leave a comment

Filed under Objects