The idea of ​​receiving psychotherapy in a museum may seem unusual. However, art psychotherapists are increasingly turning to the rich resources of museums and galleries to help them with their clinical work. Art therapy, or art psychotherapy, sees people expressing their feelings and experiences through art, as well as (or instead) through words. It can be used to help people of all ages living with a wide range of emotional or physical conditions.

NHS arts psychotherapists typically work in designated therapy rooms in hospitals or outpatient care centers, but for our recent study we wanted to explore how conducting arts psychotherapy in a museum could benefit a group with complex mental health issues. Research has shown that people “see themselves” in museum objects and that reflecting on our reactions to objects can teach us something about ourselves. For example, an object can evoke powerful emotions or symbolize an aspect of our current or past experiences. We therefore wanted to draw on museum objects to help our participants develop a better understanding of themselves. To our knowledge, this was the first time that museum objects had been used for this type of artistic psychotherapy for adults accessing NHS mental health services.

We predicted, based on findings from arts in health and art therapy case studies, that a museum setting could help inspire creativity among group members. There is also evidence that a non-clinical space could help people feel more connected to each other and their local community, and less ‘set apart’ by their mental health issues.

Working for ²gether NHS Foundation Trust, we ran a program for seven adults aged 18-25 at two museums in Gloucester for 18 weeks. Each session lasted 90 minutes and started and ended in a private teaching room at the museums.

Group members explored the museum’s exhibits and then created works of art using a variety of different materials. At first we suggested certain tasks (like finding three objects to represent their past, present and future) but as the weeks progressed they found more and more objects that they connected with. At the end of each session, there was time for verbal, group reflections.

Each work of art or artifact can mean something different to everyone who views it.
Vladimir Wrangel/Shutterstock

Talking to group members after the last session, and observing the sessions as they went, we discovered how effective the use of museum objects can be, especially for self-exploration. Susie (all names changed to protect identities) saw her desire to “erase the past and start over” reflected in a Victorian writing slate, and drew a modern device for creating images and then erasing them. She was also inspired by a model of a cross-section through the earth, drawing herself as a three-layered person and labeling her “what I show others”, “what my loved ones see” and ” what I feel about myself that hardly anyone knows”.

Another person who attended the sessions, Ellie, was inspired by a repaired Roman pot. She made a collage that expressed her feeling that she was “putting pieces of my life back together”. Caroline, meanwhile, made a timeline of her life (including very traumatic experiences), saying that “I wouldn’t have done it if I hadn’t seen the timeline in the exhibit, but it was very important to do – like putting things in place before moving on”.

Although not all members of the group produced works of art during the sessions, they still found therapeutic value in their encounters with the objects in the museum. Tasha, for example, wasn’t always able to create art in the group, but still said that “using objects for self-reflection was helpful.”

Several band members said the exhibits encouraged play and inspired their creative work, and that it “meant the band relaxed”. Some said they felt less defined by their mental health issues because the group was not held on NHS premises. Our museum sessions also encouraged independence and helped participants feel valued and connected to the world outside of mental health services.

As one participant said:

You feel like a real person working on your own personal goals rather than just a patient in treatment… You wouldn’t necessarily have thought that taking things out of museum boxes and walking around looking at artifacts would help you feel better or make progress in recovery, but you’d be surprised.

Building on this work, art psychotherapists from the ²gether Trust have since facilitated two further therapy groups in museums, for adults of all ages, and we have written about our experiences working in these settings. We would like to continue to “flexibilize” our practice, moving out of the usual therapeutic spaces, and to encourage other art psychotherapists to explore how this rich therapeutic resource can also help others.

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