Some impressions of an inspiring conference

A view of the outside of the Museum Dr. Guislain
Paul Hermans [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]

The Museum Dr. Guislain in Ghent was on 29 and 30 November 2018 the meeting point for individuals from the public, academic, third sector and voluntary sectors who work on cultural heritage and wellbeing. The museum was host for the international conference Participation in cultural heritage for mental health recovery that FARO, the Flemish interface centre for cultural heritage, organised with several partners.


More than 110 participants from seven countries we’re inspired with a programme spearheaded by keynotes from Helen Chatterjee from University College London and Nick Merriman CEO of the Horniman Museum and 28 papers delivered by speakers representing 41 organisations and institutions. These pictures give an impression:


A symbolic venue


The Museum Dr. Guislain is an obvious choice as a location for this conference. Housed in the oldest mental asylum in Belgium, which dates back to 1857, this museum aims to break down the many prejudices that still define what is ‘mentally ill’ and what is ‘normal’. The museum we’re the conference took place is surrounded by a mental health hospital that is located in the nineteenth-century belt around Ghent.


A lot – if not all – of the points that where raised during the conference are central to the work of this museum. Mental health, stories, access, institute, community, … all these words are linked to this place. And also people: the patients from the hospital who pass by, some every day, people in care who work in the exhibition rooms or the ‘not so hipster white and rich’ community who live around the museum.


And as in many museums there’s also discussion among staff members on the position of the collections as a tool for wellbeing activities. Is cultural heritage just ‘stuff’ that we used as a tools or do we have to find a balance between the intrinsic value of museum objects and their use as prompts during interventions? And what about the stories that have to be told?


General impressions


It’s impossible to summarize everything that was said and discussed during the conference. Luckily we had some flying reporters who attended the different sessions[1]. Of their notes we distilled some general impressions.


An evidence based approach to wellbeing activities is very important and there’s a creative diversity in ways of measuring and evaluating interventions. In this area still a lot that can be done. Especially in developing easy to use tools and methods for gathering the evidence that some things work or not.


We need to communicate the impact of pilots more and better. We have to make the case not only to policymakers but also to our own sectors.


We have to take the equality in projects into account. Museum staff, volunteers, participants, patients, clients, young adults, elderly, … are all different but once together no one, to paraphrase George Orwell in an opposite way, is more equal than the other.


The importance of storytelling. In a parallel way to the work of psychiatrists, psychologists and mental health workers we heard a lot on how to make and create stories, ways of telling of finding words to describe what someone feels or thinks. Many the speakers placed the storyteller central in their projects. The process of telling a story as creating a chain of connected words.


The central role of collaborations and networks between all kinds of disciplines. And especially the importance of the co-production between the cultural heritage worker and (mental) health experts. Because creating a story in a mental health context is often mingled with difficulties, pain and trauma. These themes have to be approached by professionals.


The importance of the place or space. Creating a place of care where someone feels like an individual more then only member of a certain group, whether it be an elder person, a prisoner, a patient… it’s important to feel safe, to feel secure in making, telling or creating a story.


The whole museum staff is an important partner. When everybody in the organization, from front- to backend, shows empathy and kindness you have more change to have good results.


An easy way for cultural institutes to create that safe place is simply to be more accessible and welcoming. To quote one of the speakers: “It needs more than a free entrance to a gallery. Tea, coffee and biscuits are essential.”.


Still a lot of issues


This international conference shows that cultural heritage is more than the intrinsic value of collections or the aesthetic, emotional or historical value that we attach to objects. Cultural heritage can also be used to improve the wellbeing and health of people with mental health problems. There’s a growing international movement that strives to put well-being activities at the core of cultural heritage institutions.

Hereby the cultural heritage organizations respond to important societal challenges like loneliness, mental health problems, poverty, dementia, and so on. They can help tackling these challenges provided that they do not depart from their own heritage agenda, but from the needs and requirements of people and communities.


The previous comment at the same time points the finger at the wound. Namely that wellbeing activities a more than often are one-of events that are possible when there additional funds available.


If the cultural heritage sector really want to create social added value than sustainability remains it’s Achilles heel. Only a combination of structural measures can make the cultural heritage sector a meaningful social player. Measures such as mainstreaming the health and wellbeing activities through outreach teams which are part of the core activities and use cultural collections on an instrumental basis. Or setting up long-term programs with clear goals and agreements between all the partners on management level. And implementing measuring and evaluating the impact of interventions with cultural heritage so that museums, archives, libraries and heritage organizations can be strong partners for social prescribing schemes.


We have to be especially watchful for the social-economic exclusion on different levels. Such as the social gradient in health which means that the lower an individual’s socioeconomic position is the worse their health is. Sometimes wellbeing activities are more effective when they are framed in a wider policy that is aimed at tackling poverty. And we also to tackle the social exclusion within the cultural heritage institutions in such a way that heritage organizations reflect society. Simply because they then can work more efficiently.


How do we go further

The evaluations from the participants clearly shows that they value seeing the work of other museums and organisations, networking and meeting fellow professionals. One participant described it as a way of  “benchmarking against other museums.”. Sharing, learning and connecting about the different approaches in other countries and how we can learn from each other is what has makes this conference special.


Because sharing is caring we silently hope to repeat a similar international conference in the not so far future. But in the meanwhile we keep on working at the ambitious program around cultural heritage, health and wellbeing that FARO since 2016 has setup in collaboration with many partners from the cultural heritage and health and care sector in Flanders. Central in this programme are long-term trajectories focussing on deploying heritage collections to improve the wellbeing and health of people as well as measuring and evaluate the impact of those interventions. FARO also organize training courses for heritage professionals about different subjects (dementia, autism, assed based approach, measuring the impact, …) and has setup or facilitates research. By the end of 2019 we’re aiming to have a generic toolset and a training for professionals in the cultural heritage and care sector.


In the course of the last years a strong working relations has been developed with partners in the UK. Bart De Nil has visited on numerous occasions the UK to visit some best practices or for longer job shadowing periods (London, Newcastle, Swansea, Glasgow). With concrete results such as the work on community museums with The Waterfront Museum in Swansea. From these contacts emerged the British-Flemish working group Open Heritage Depots. The first results of Open Heritage Depots were presented by Julia Cort from Horniman Museum at the conference. And since then the group is being extended by representatives from The National Archives UK and the Museum Dr. Guislain.


These contacts and the working group can be an element in the development of an international knowledge network on cultural heritage and wellbeing. That network that can take the lead in the organisation of a new even bigger conference about cultural heritage and mental health. We certainly will support it!

Bart De Nil, FARO. Flemish interface centre for cultural heritage
Bart Marius, Museum Dr. Guislain






[1] Bart Marius, Kristine Timpermans, Saïdya Vanhooren, Arnout De Cleene, Yoon Hee Lamot, Els Veraverbeke, Liesa Rutsaert

Image courtesy of Paul Hermans [CC BY-SA 3.0 (]