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.