Wednesday, 11 September 2019

An Interview with Keynote Presenter Professor Helen Chatterjee



Professor Helen Chatterjee will be delivering the closing keynote address, “Museums, Health, and Well-being: The Bio-psychosocial Impact of Museum Participation,” at the Alberta Museums Association 2019 Conference. In advance of the conference, Prof. Chatterjee spoke with Ann Ramsden, Executive Director of the Arts and Heritage Foundation of  St. Albert, for an interview.


You are a professor of Biology specializing in genetics, evolution, and environment. With this academic background, how did you become interested in museological research?

I trained as a zoologist with a PhD in primatology, and my zoology research has always involved using zoology museum collections to look at morphological adaptation, evolution, and conservation of endangered species. During my PhD, I ‘inherited’ University College London’s Grant Museum of Zoology. Initially, I began as a TA, teaching using the collections, but when the Curator retired, I took on that role. I ran the Museum for ten years before becoming Director, then Deputy Director of UCL Museums for five further years. I still use the museum today for teaching and research.

During my time at the Grant Museum, I began researching object-based learning and the value of museums to health and well-being. Ten years ago, I was awarded the first ever UK research grant to explore the role of touch and object handling in relation to well-being and health, and my work has expanded from there.


Tell me about the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance and your role in it.

Initially, I co-founded the National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing with colleagues from National Museums Liverpool, but we had always planned to merge with the National Alliance for Arts, Health & Wellbeing due to the many synergies between arts, artists, arts organisations, and museums. We did so last year to form the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance; we provide the Secretariat to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing, to which I am also an advisor. We are currently setting up a National Strategy Centre for culture and health.


What can museums offer in terms of health and wellness? Is this the same for human history and natural history museums and collections?

Our research shows that whilst natural history and archaeology collections are more popular, eliciting well-being is less about the actual objects used and more about the nature of the conversation and the quality of facilitation.

Our main research findings are that museums offer positive social experiences, leading to reduced social isolation; opportunities for learning and acquiring new skills; and calming experiences, leading to decreased anxiety. We have also found increased positive emotions (e.g. optimism, hope, and enjoyment), increased self-esteem and sense of identity, positive distraction from clinical environments, and increased communication between families, carers, and health professionals.


What barriers have you encountered with participation in cultural events?  What strategies can you suggest for museums to overcome these barriers?

Transport and psychological barriers are the biggest. I often hear, “Museums are not for me.” However, once participants are supported in their visit – with awareness of any physical or psychological challenges they may be dealing with – they have a different view of museums.


Who are museums’ partners in health and well-being?

Partnerships in health might include hospitals and primary care providers, and in social care, residential care homes. Partnerships may also be developed with not-for-profit charities, such as the Alzheimer’s Society, and other voluntary or support organisations.


How do we train museum staff, volunteers, and board members to become active participants in health and well-being?

Partnerships with health, social care, and support organisations are essential as they will often help to provide relevant training and support. There are also initiatives such as Dementia Friends or Mental Health First Aid and Safeguarding training. There is also a need for this kind of training to be included in museum studies programs.


The foreword of the APPG Creative Health report notes that “[c]ulture change cannot be imposed by government, and we are not asking for legislation or organisational upheaval or more public spending. Government can, however, support the process of change.” Does this mean that museums and cultural institutions need to reprioritize within existing resources?

Yes, I think well-being needs to be strategically embedded in organizational strategies, staffing, and structures to support well-being provision across the whole of the service.


Professor Helen Chatterjee is a Professor of Biology in UCL Biosciences. Her research includes biodiversity conservation and evidencing the impact of natural and cultural participation on health. She co-founded the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance, is an advisor to the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts and Health, and sits on the Royal Society for Public Health’s SIG in Arts and Health, and the IUCN Section on Small Apes. Her interdisciplinary research has won a range of awards, including most recently the 2018 AHRC-Wellcome Health Humanities Medal and Leadership Award. She can be found on Twitter: @h_chatterjee


Prof. Chatterjee’s Keynote Presentation opens the second day of sessions at the AMA 2019 Conference, on Saturday, September 21. Prof. Chatterjee will also hold a Keynote Follow-up session Saturday afternoon. For more information about these sessions, please view the 2019 Conference Program.

Monday, 26 August 2019

A Preconference Conversation with Keynote Presenter Dr. Carol Ryff and Moderator Dick Averns

Dr. Carol D. Ryff will be delivering the opening keynote address, “Bridging the Museum Experience to Well-being and Health,” at the Alberta Museums Association 2019 Conference. In advance of the conference, Dr. Ryff sat down with Dick Averns, artist and engagement coordinator with CARFAC Alberta, for an interview. 


Averns: Thanks for sharing some insight into your work, Carol, on the Conference theme, As a Whole: Well-being, Health, and Museums. So, how does your work and research promote health and well-being, and how do you see museums as relevant?

Ryff: For the last thirty years, my research has addressed three main questions: What is human well-being? How can we measure it? And how does it matter for health? My past research has not explicitly linked museum experiences to health and well-being, although I am an advocate for work in that direction. I’m especially interested in how partaking of museums might impact people’s sense that their lives have meaning, purpose, and direction, as well as their sense that they are experiencing personal growth over time.


So in the future, do you see museums playing an increasing role in the fields of health and well-being?

There is growing scientific evidence to show that encounters with the arts – broadly defined to include visual arts, music, literature, poetry, film, and dance – do contribute to human well-being and facilitate recovery from illness. Great art, for example, can inspire deep reflections about beauty or pain or historical change. Indigenous art is also a form of broadening personal experiences with music, dance, and self-expression.

In general, I subscribe to the philosophy that life-long well-being (including self-knowledge, quality ties to others, purposeful engagement, realization of personal capacities) requires continual learningthe taking in of new sources of information. Museums are a great place for broadening our personal horizons.

How do you envision museums building partnerships or making connections in order to act for the benefit of individual and community well-being?

In Denmark, a country that contributes extensive public support for a wide array of museums, there is emphasis on “evidence-based curating.” Effectively, the government wants more assessment of how museums matter. As an example, some there advocate for “art on prescription,” which encourages older persons to visit local museums, become engaged with museum activities, and use these places as forums for continuing education.

That’s a great example. I wasn’t aware of this in Denmark, although I do know that the UK has been a pioneer in social prescribing. The Kings Fund has a great introduction.

There’s also an organization in the UK, People United, that seeks to promote kindness in community contexts via the arts. Museums can also play a part in such endeavours.

In Philadelphia, the Porch Light Program created community art projects, murals, in run-down neighborhoods. The work involved partnerships between local residents, health and policy officials, and researchers. Their evidence shows that creating these striking murals has enhanced the sense of safety and efficacy in these neighborhoods.

I like this example because it embraces public art and speaks to the possibility of museums taking a lead in initiatives that go beyond their own walls, and considering community art and social practice.

Turning to the AMA conference, Carol, what takeaways would you like attendees to garner from your presentation?

I hope to convey that those who are involved in curating museums are doing more than managing repositories of human culture. They are providing not just opportunities for learning about and engaging in history and the arts, but also possibly playing important roles in how to approach contemporary life challenges.

What is missing to date are more systematic assessments of these wider impacts of museums. This is a field where collaboration and partnerships with researchers studying human health and well-being has important future potential.

Thanks Carol, this is illuminating for sure. I look forward to your session and talking more in person and with our conference delegates.

Likewise. Thanks Dick.


Dr. Carol D. Ryff is the Director of the Institute on Aging and Hilldale Professor of Psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has investigated how psychological well-being varies by age, educational status, and cultural context, as well as by the challenges and transitions of adult life. Her research considers whether well-being is protective of good health, how some are able to maintain or regain well-being in the face of adversity, and what neurobiology underlies this capacity. Recently, she has become engaged in linking the arts and humanities to well-being and health.

Dr. Ryff’s Keynote Presentation opens the AMA 2019 Conference on Friday, September 20. Dr. Ryff will also hold a Keynote Follow-up session Friday afternoon. For more information about these sessions, please view the 2019 Conference Program.