Discover more from Creative Aging Resource Journal from Lifetime Arts
Participatory Arts Programming for Older Adults in Museums: Trends in Europe, the UK, and Canada
A curated collection of programs aligned with the tenets of the creative aging arts education model and designed to become embedded in cultural institutions.
From Amsterdam to Liverpool and Brussels to Montreal, creative aging activities in cultural institutions are changing older adults’ relationships to art and to museums, and paving the way for wider recognition and support for older adult creativity.
Museum leaders the world over are realizing that creative aging’s intersection with public health, community planning, and participatory arts is a powerful and positive catalyst for change in the cultural sector.
The impact of private funding on creative aging in the US and UK
Development of the field of creative aging and related experiments in museum programming are due in no small measure to private funding.
In the US, E.A. Michaelson Philanthropy created and supported Seeding Vitality Arts in Museums with the goal of building the capacities of cultural organizations to carry out creative aging programming. This work has involved formation of grantee cohorts, providing direct grants to participating cultural institutions, and supporting staff training and networking opportunities.
E.A. Michelson Philanthropy is building on its prior work in the museum sector to develop “a major new initiative to expand their Vitality Arts programs in America’s art museums.” The funder also recently announced a third round of general operating support funding for Lifetime Arts who serves as a partner on all of their Seeding Vitality Arts initiatives, and who will be available for consultation, coaching, and training for the next museums initiative.
In the UK one major philanthropy has helped to shape the field: The Baring Foundation. Baring has supported programs, projects, research, and cross-cutting support initiatives. Older and Wiser: Creative Ageing in the UK, 2010-19 is a report commissioned by the Foundation that examines the work funded by the foundation over 10 ten years.
The array of grants included programming, professional development, evaluation research and advocacy. The Foundation has provided three years of support for a new national organization established in 2020 and directed by Dr. Virginia Tandy OBE, the Creative Ageing Developing Agency (CADA). Housed at the Manchester Museum, CADA “amplifies the efforts of the many organizations across the UK, including museums, to expand older adult participation in culture.”
Interested in lessons learned and inspiring creative aging practice from the last two years? Register for this free online event hosted by CADA on Thursday, June 9.
Speakers include David Cutler, Director of The Baring Foundation; Maura O’Malley, Lifetime Arts’ CEO; Naoki Sugawara, OiBokkeShi; Dr. Tara Byrne, Age & Opportunity; Andy Barry, Royal Exchange Theatre; and the authors of Visionaries: a South Asian arts and ageing counter narrative Elizabeth Lynch MBE and Arti Prashar OBE.
Progress in Canada and Europe
Beyond the UK and the US there are exciting examples emerging, despite a lack of support comparable to that in the UK and the US. In Canada creative aging is starting to take hold in some of the major museums, although support is limited to corporate and institutional support. In Europe, particularly the Netherlands, a variety of public initiatives have helped to put age-friendly activities and creative aging at the forefront for cultural institutions and advocates for positive aging.
In all of the countries where we see growth in creative aging research, advocacy and practice, the work on the ground seems to be most extensive in museums. This is logical, and it aligns with museums’ increasing focus on diversity and inclusion. Recently, MuseumConnections invited representatives from France Alzheimer, Rijksmuseum Amsterdam, Groupe SNCF, and Lifetime Arts to discuss possible pathways forward for museums in Europe. (See video below.)
Social Impact: Engaging with Older Adults, Museums Connections, Paris, March 31, 2022
“How can institutions contribute to the social inclusion and well-being of the elderly, fight ageism, and foster intergenerational dialogue?”
II. Surfacing Evidence of Equitable Museum Programming for Older Adults
For this edition of Lifetime Arts’ Creative Aging Resource Newsletter, I am posing the following questions, and sharing what I have learned from an in-depth survey of programming and partnerships:
What is the state of programming by museums (in the UK and elsewhere) that offers evidence of progress towards more meaningful, equitable, and innovative cultural participation by older adults?
What programming trends are afoot in museum land that offer instructive examples for peers in the US?
To answer these questions I have sifted through program announcements and project evaluations, conference presentations, toolkits, academic articles, and museum directors’ statements. The amount of activity going on is remarkable, from “age-friendly” coalitions and networks to projects that foster older adult wellbeing, to new approaches to reminiscence activities and social prescriptions for museum visits. Some findings:
Museum leaders in the UK, Europe and Canada understand the significance of the demographic shifts taking place around them and see older adults as an expanding and core constituency.
Many are aware of the mounting evidence for the beneficial effects of cultural experiences, especially participatory experiences, on the health and wellbeing of older adults and are seeking ways that museums can help address this important social issue.
Some museum leaders are focused on older adult programming as a means to adapt programs and practices to reflect their increasingly diverse — including age diverse — populations.
Some leaders are conscious of the negative impacts of ageism, and its continuing influence on staff, audiences, and community partners.
The changes in thinking about museums’ roles in an aging society are reflected in the tapestry of current programs taking place. This tapestry includes highlights and best practices but, as yet, no overarching approach, no gold standard. There are, however, trends in practice that provide clues to the future of museum programming for and with older adults.
III. An Overview of Emerging Trends
Programming that is Embedded and Sustained
Although there are useful one-time projects taking place, the following programs are designed to become embedded in the life of the institution. Some may be adapted and integrated with other facets of adult programming, but they all reveal an institutional commitment to older adults as an ongoing core constituency.
“Van Gogh Meets,” van Gogh Museum (Amsterdam, NL) is a “comprehensive age-friendly program” in which older adults take part in workshops in multiple disciplines and attend special afternoons that include tours and group conversations. The programs are targeted toward individuals and groups that have been identified as non-traditional museum goers: isolated people aged 70 and up.
The program has had multiple impacts on these participants and on the institution itself, especially in the areas of space design, signage, and staff training. This program also sparked the development of an “Age-Friendly Museum Network of like-minded institutions dedicated to making their institutions accessible to elderly people.”
Artful Aging: Adding Meaning to Seniors’ Lives Through Arts and Culture (AARP International, 2019)
A Focus on Participatory Learning
The following programs all engage active older adults in viewing, discussion and creative expression. They are not passive entertainment nor are they direct art therapy. They are opportunities for substantive learning, skills development and cultural exchange.
“Handmade,” at the Whitworth Art Gallery (Manchester, UK) is a regular series of art workshops offered for people 55+, and is the cornerstone of the gallery’s age-friendly program. “Handmade” consists of weekly artmaking sessions run by older artists. The Whitworth also offers creative activities for older adults 55+ living with HIV/AIDS.
Stream this short audio interview (embedded below) with the Whitworth’s Age-Friendly Coordinator, Clair Cowell, on “Handmade” programming, ongoing program development, and how participants are finding that it fills a gap left by a lack of night school programming in the area:
Social Engagement as a Core Component
All of the programs highlighted in this section reflect the knowledge that older adults are often socially isolated, and subject to loneliness and depression brought on by a lack of social interaction. To address this issue, these museum programs build in a social component, whether it is time for conversation during an art class, regular gatherings in the museum café, or group walks on the museum grounds.
“Meet Me at the Museum,” Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford University (Oxford, UK) is a group for older people “that enables behind the-scenes access to the museum and its collections.” The program is intended to advance participants’ social connections, offering new opportunities for conversations and learning together. Participants work with staff to co-design the focus of activities.
Aside from handling and discussing objects in the collections, “The Meet Me at the Museum” team has co-produced displays, composed and performed music in the galleries, and photographed favorite museum objects for an app. Through the museum’s association with the University’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine the project has been studied to determine its value for participants’ wellbeing.
Although many effective older adult activities in museums do not have a research component, when they do the programs are more likely to be institutionalized and supported, both internally and externally. An evaluation conducted by an independent researcher, including quantitative and qualitative approaches, can help refine the program and communicate its value to participants, the larger community, and to the museum itself.
“Thursdays at the Museum,” offered by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) (Montreal, Québec, CA) is a participatory art-based activity designed to improve the well-being, quality of life and physical health of older adults living in the community.
Participants take part in art workshops during 12 sessions spread over a 3-month period. Two instructors facilitate sessions with special attention to handcrafting techniques, fine motor skills, and creativity. The program was created in 2015 and evaluated in 2018, with findings indicating improvements in all three areas of health and wellbeing. “Thursdays at the Museums” is ongoing.
There are few studies of museum-based participatory arts programs of comparable scope and quality. MMFA is a leader in the movement to build alliances with researchers exploring the health benefits of arts experiences in museums.
Rooted in the Community
In my research I have noticed the critical importance of connecting museum-based activities for older adults with other local or regional initiatives to improve the quality of life for older adults. These initiatives include Age-Friendly communities, health agencies or coalitions of health providers addressing local health issues, or lifelong learning programs at community centers or universities. Local collaborations provide a supportive context for museums and are hallmarks of successful, sustainable programs.
Over the last 10 years Dulwich Picture Gallery has been a leader among British art museums in the development of community-connected programs for older adults, especially those without prior access to museums or art programs.
“Good Times, Art for Older People at Dulwich Picture Gallery,” a program started in 2013, was designed to “discover how best an art gallery could serve an ageing population and help address social isolation”. The involvement of multiple community organizations as partners was a hallmark of the program.
The current program, “Ageing Well,” builds on what the institution learned in its earlier efforts and “combats social isolation by providing a positive environment which promotes wellbeing, resilience and connectedness.” It offers a wide variety of free activities for local residents and groups including: creative workshops, tours of the gallery, and movement and mindfulness sessions. All the sessions can be delivered at the Gallery or in a local setting.
The Gallery also offers a bi-monthly Creative Arts Café for local individuals at risk of social isolation. A community team and community volunteers are keys to the success of the program, along with the many community partner organizations that help ensure that the Dulwich builds its audience “so that even more local people can benefit from the creative arts.”
According to Gillian Wolfe, Director of Learning and Public Affairs at the Dulwich:
“Educational programmes seek to push out the boundaries of what an art gallery or museum can achieve, and by doing so, revising and reviewing the role of the museum gallery as a vibrant agent in a social context.”
An Emphasis on Wellbeing and Health
More and more museums in the UK and Canada, in particular, are participating in Museums on Prescription, a relatively new model for addressing health issues, especially mental health, through the use of museum visits. From Brussels to Toronto, medical professionals are prescribing free visits to museums for patients suffering from general anxiety or COVID-19 related stress.
Social Prescriptions Program at Royal Ontario Museum (ROM). The Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Canada conducted a trial of 50 Social Prescriptions in 2018. The pilot was so well-received that as of January 2019 ROM expanded the program into a continuing social prescription program in collaboration with the Museum’s Community Access Network partners organizations, and the Alliance for Healthier Communities. Through this program, thousands of people who are accessing health or social services “will have the opportunity to benefit from the enriching experience of engaging with art, culture and nature.”
Feeling Isolated? You can now be prescribed a trip to the museum. (Toronto Star, 2019)
Museum Visits Prescribed to Combat Covid-Related Stress (MuseumNext, 2021)
Reminiscence, Collections Handling and Oral History Programming
Oral history projects, collections handling and reminiscence are staples of older adult programming in museums and somewhat taken for granted. However, as contemporary museum educators reimagine these programs through the lens of cross-generational knowledge transfer and information gathering essential for collections interpretation, they are renewing their interest in these approaches. There are even efforts to promulgate a new form of museum visit prescription: “Reminiscence Prescription.”
“Memory Lane,” Museum of Oxford (Oxford, UK) is a program of themed reminiscence sessions for older people that has been running since 2010. It is “a collaboration between the Oxford Institute of Population Ageing and the Oxford University Museums Partnership.”
Each session includes a short informal presentation on a topic, then time is spent sharing stories, experiences and memories, followed by a cup of tea or coffee. A seemingly simple program, “Memory Lane” has been instrumental in providing content for museum exhibits and programs.
As I write this, a new reminiscence program is about to be launched by the Ashmolean Museum (Oxford, UK) in summer of 2022. “Talking Memory” is a joint project with the Oxford Research Centre in the Humanities that is designed to connect “the role of museums as repositories of memories with their role as spaces of social care.” Jim Harris, Teaching Curator and developer of Talking Memory states:
“The part museums play in preserving, recounting, activating and creating memory is one of their most important functions …Talking Memory is about conversation, imagination and community.”
“Memories Under the Microscope: The Memory Lane Project” at the Museum of Oxford (UK) is a video presentation on the program featuring Helen Fountain, Reminiscence Officer, Oxford University Museums and Kate Hamblin, Senior Research Fellow, University of Oxford Institute for Population and Ageing when they were presenting at the Oxford University Museums Staff Conference, September 2016.
Engaging Older Adults as Co-Creators
Efforts to engage older adults as co-curators and co-creators figure in the new programming landscape. More and more museums see co-creation as complementary and parallel to more conventional artmaking workshops. They see this form of engagement not only as a way of acknowledging the value of older adults’ experience and insights, but also as a concrete means of enriching public understanding of their collections and institutions.
According to According to Laura Phillips, Head of Community Partnerships at the British Museum,
“These museums are considering the opportunities an ageing population brings, rather than simply working out how ‘business as usual’ will be sustained as the population ages.”
“Danger! Men at Work,” Whitworth Art Gallery (Manchester, UK) was an exhibition created collaboratively with a group of older men. The exhibit resulted from the Gallery’s concern about the lack of older men attending the museum. While the museum was undergoing renovation a staff member undertook a year-long research project on older men and their cultural interests, and then worked with a group of local men to create an exhibition based on the Whitworth collections. Designed to explore “masculinity,” through the Gallery’s collections, the exhibit was featured when the Gallery re-opened and it became one of its most popular exhibits. The Gallery developed a Handbook for Cultural Engagement with Older Men that is a key resource for museums throughout the UK.
Danger! Men at Work (Blog post)
This overview of trends has helped to answer some of my questions about the state of creative aging in museums outside of the US. Creative aging is still an emerging field of practice, including in the museum sector. While centers of excellence exist, successful models need an infrastructure through which to adapt and replicate across the museum profession. It is, however, inspiring to see the variety and scope of so many different programs created for and with older adults.
As creative aging is institutionalized as core museum practice, I like to think that museum leaders, museum educators, and all those who work with active older adults, will increasingly agree with Esmé Ward, Director of the Manchester Museum and a member of the CADA advisory group:
“It’s time to build momentum and for imaginative, brave thinking and action if we are going to address ageism and realise the potential of a creative ageing society.
— Diantha Dow Schull for Lifetime Arts
About Lifetime Arts
Lifetime Arts is the national leader in the development and dissemination of creative aging capacity building services. Training, technical assistance and innovative resources help catalyze arts education programming in organizations that serve older adults including museums, public libraries, arts and senior service organizations.
About Diantha Dow Schull
Diantha Dow Schull is Principal and Founder of DDSchull Associates LLC, providing advisory and training services for museums, libraries, foundations and nonprofits. She is also a cultural organization program specialist and has led the development of major national creative aging programs for public libraries in collaboration with Lifetime Arts. She has written articles and books for museum and library professionals, including, “Boomers and Beyond: Reconsidering the Roles of Libraries,” with Pauline Rothstein, PhD. Diantha has been part of Lifetime Arts’s extended team for over a decade.
The Creative Aging Resource Newsletter is made possible through the generous support of E.A. Michelson Philanthropy.