Museum TrendsWatch: Mental Health for All

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

June 15, 2022

This week continues our review of Center for the Future of Museums’ TrendsWatch report and its five pillars. This week’s pillar is Mental Health for All.

The Center for the Future of Museums (CFM) is under the auspices of American Alliance of Museums and offers a trends forecast that typically covers five topics, sometimes all related, sometimes not. This year the unifying theme is Museums as Community Infrastructure.

This section takes the dual approach of mental health for both museum staff as well as the broader, external museum community. CFM Founding Director Elizabeth Merritt begins with establishing how the museum can be good for our mental and physical health, and references pre-COVID studies regarding doctors in Canada and Europe prescribing museum visits as a way to improve overall health. (I wrote about the first known study in Canada back in June 2020 via Lucidea’s Think Clearly Blog: Go Visit a Museum – Doctor’s Orders!.

The Issues in Play

This section acknowledges that things weren’t great in the US previous to COVID-19. Merritt specifically identifies perpetual issues (present pre-COVID): racism and discrimination, isolation, and the “dark side” of social media. And then came the pandemic. Depression and anxiety rates sky rocketed and Merritt argues this is all the more reason why museums should step up into a more “essential” role to support the well-being of their community. However, in the next paragraph of this section, the shift focuses on how badly museum staff have suffered from the ravages of the pandemic. Unfortunately, Merritt fails to reconcile these two truths and it serves as another example of how this report encourages museums (ergo, museum staff) to “do more!”, but doesn’t address the larger issues in the way of being able to do more. (Lack of funds and a burnt out and underpaid staff, to name a few). This is a persistent gap in this year’s TrendsWatch report, and one that I hope is better addressed with future CFM offerings.

What Museums Can Do

The core actions from this section are:

  • Identify groups on staff and in the community that may be more at risk for mental health damage. 
  • Consider ways in which the museum can use its platform or place within the community to help combat stigma, prejudice, and discrimination that comes from experiencing mental illness. 
  • Create a healthy work culture and actively support people in managing mental illness.
  • Provide staff with training to address the topic of mental health safely and effectively; with staff, volunteers, and patrons.
  • Connect with local organization to explore how the museum may play a meaningful role in support services to the community.

A Bright Side

The pandemic was not without some positive outcomes. As Merritt captures in the report, the pandemic has normalized telehealth medicine, it’s forced conversations of mental health to the forefront, and it’s provided a mass shared experience that can serve as a reference point for all of us. I would add these last two years has also forced us to grow our empathy muscles and has normalized the concept of extending grace to others in both personal and professional settings—something I hope we’re able to continue.

A Framework for Action

Each TrendsWatch section includes an “Action” area. The following is a summary of those actions for this section:

Inward Action

  • Create a work culture that pays attention to language used in order to help gage mental health levels.
  • Train managers to provide support and access to needed resources to the people they supervise.
  • Lead by example with higher positioned staff (if comfortable) sharing their own mental experiences more openly.
  • Regularly solicit feedback in order to detect early signs of stress or burn out.
  • Offer staff training on mental health so that they can recognize distress and know how to offer support.
  • Assess current labor practices and revise to meet ethical (non-exploitive) labor standards. This includes the limitation of contract or term work, part-time positions without benefits, unpaid internships, etc.

Outward Action

  • Develop relationships with community services and explore how the museum can learn from and contribute to their work.
  • Read and familiarize yourself with studies on how arts engagement can support and promote mental health and wellbeing. 
  • Train staff and volunteers on how to interface with public around sensitive and potentially triggering issues.
  • Design safe places that include content warnings, a place to facilitate reflection and processing of difficult emotions.
  • Consider how to continue community partnerships after a collaborative event or exhibit is over.

Conclusion

For more information on what peer museums have done in this area, and for more in-depth analysis on this topic, please view the original report available via the CFM TrendsWatch website. Next week we move on to the next pillar of community infrastructure: Emergency Response in the Face of Disasters. 

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody advises on museum strategies, digital museums, collections management, and grant writing for a wide variety of clients. In addition to several titles published by Lucidea Press, she is a regular contributor to the Think Clearly blog and an always popular presenter. And remember to check out Lucidea’s Argus solution for powerful and innovative museum collections management.

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