Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Feeling better: Museum Objects and Well-Being – Mary Cook

In my hand I hold a black and white picture of some little children in uniform drinking their school milk.  The girls have short bobbed hair and are smiling – the image goes back before my time but it has an instantaneous association.  I remember  my first day at school wearing the blue jumper with rabbits on the pocket that my mum knitted.  I remember the red shoes and the pencil case with Holly Hobby on it.  I remember the cool taste of the milk, the condensation on the glass bottle and the unbending straw which was uncomfortable if pushed up in the mouth. 

I remember my peg where we changed our shoes and coats and the carpeted steps where we listened to the radio show “listen with mother” while trying hard not to fall asleep.
The little girls in the photograph provoke a memory too – my mother in a photograph with just that hairstyle.  And that little girl looks a lot like a younger version of my niece. 

It caught me out that wave of memory and association from a photograph in the museum. 
And I was not alone in experiencing unexpected positive association; it became clear as the other trainees shared the objects they selected.   Despite the fact we were technically “too young” for the activity, these objects took us back in our own timelines and reminiscence. As a group we learned a little bit more about one another.

Trainees during a training session on reminiscence
Helen Fountain had been telling us about her work at the Museum of  Oxford  and out in the community taking objects for handling and reminiscence to groups of older people.  That is to say 120 sessions delivered to 1,500 older people per year!

The theory we nodded along to, it all seemed a very good idea, very educational.  Helen wanted us to see the value in terms of health and wellbeing too. Each person in a group would feel their contribution validated, they would feel less isolated and have fun.  The visitor and the objects would be a welcome break from the routine.  For carers it is an opportunity to learn a little more about the person in their care, assisting with life story and care planning. It’s not just a one way street in terms of benefit either.  The museum would benefit from the generation of oral history resulting from these groups and a wider more inclusive audience. 

It’s not just theory though.  There is a good body of evidence on the benefits of object handling in hospitals and care homes, for example:
“The pilot project ‘Heritage in Hospitals’ demonstrates that handling museum objects can have a positive impact on patient wellbeing as patients, on average, recorded higher scores on visual analogue scales measuring life satisfaction and health status after handling museum objects.”
Museopathy; Exploring the Healing Potential of Handling Museum Objects by Helen Chatterjee et al (2009)

I wondered: how do inanimate objects have a verifiable effect on health and wellbeing?  Is that effect a constant?  Will it occur outside of control conditions, in a self selecting group who have access to the opportunity more sporadically? And what works?  What outside of the museum constitutes a reminiscence object?

I joined Helen for an outreach reminiscence session to find answers to some of these questions.  She had brought objects on the theme of rural life: growing up in the countryside.  Even today Oxford is blessed with meadow and rural locations close at hand, but I did wonder how this theme would play out with a city based group with potentially restricted mobility. 

The memory unlike the physical body is remarkably free to travel in time and space.  Childhood connections with farming and the countryside were shared, prompted by photographs and objects.  These were multiple and varied.  Many  objects and  photographs were included:  a photograph of river swimming near Cowley;  a collection bag from a church; sheep shears, a photograph of a bread trolley being pushed by bakers across ice in Chipping Norton;  horse brasses ,a riding hat and a milk churn.  New tangents occurred too – which helped us see into the life stories of the group in new and surprising ways across wider themes of work and family life.  It also took us further back in time than one might expect too as people shared their parents’ or grandparents’ stories as well as their own.  We crossed the country too – with local stories interspersed by those of people who once lived further afield.

The session drew to a close with a birdsong quiz and old time music signalled it was time for lunch.  Some people danced out of the room – a very clear sign they were happy!  Sound added another dimension to the session which had been a very pleasant experience for all involved.  Smiling, listening and sharing showed the ease they felt with one another and with Helen.

I was aware of research supported by the National Trust into the benefits of birdsong and had been aware of the benefit of being outdoors or having even a view of the outside in promoting recovery.  It makes sense to me that reminiscence by taking you into other environments through memory might have a similar beneficial effect.   What I am wondering now is whether we can layer up some of these benefits.  Perhaps object handling, outdoors using natural soundscapes could even improve on these effects?  It’s something I hope to see on my final placement at Oxford University Botanic Garden next year as I am aware that Helen Fountain’s Memory Lane group have benefited from visiting sites of association as much as they have from sharing objects from them.

1 comment:

  1. I appreciate the note that people "dancing out of the room" was a good indicator of happiness! We've been doing a lot of experimenting with nontraditional ways to measure social outcomes like wellbeing here in Santa Cruz. You might want to check out these experimental rapid research projects: http://camp.santacruzmah.org/