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Wellbeing and escape through exhibitions

Why touring exhibitions matter #3


from Brocéliande, France

reading time 8 minutes

#3 – Wellbeing and escape through exhibitions is the third article in the Why Touring Exhibitions Matter series by Teo. This series of articles aims to highlight the value of travelling exhibitions in the context of the multi-layered crisis cultural institutions and their audiences are currently facing. The series investigates how such creative productions and the collaborations they foster are essential sources of value for cultural institutions and their audiences at large, and how they will be, and already are, key resources for recovery in the cultural world and beyond. In this third article, we explore how travelling exhibitions can bring safe escape opportunities to visitors and contribute to cultural institutions’ engagement with the wellbeing of communities.

Museum engagement for community wellbeing

Cultural experiences need not, and arguably should not, wait for the multi-layered crisis and its long-term effects to be over. Exhibitions, outreach programmes and live experiences are not inconsequential sources of enjoyment that can be suspended until the world secures a vaccine and current political and social instabilities wear off. It is widely acknowledged, evident through results of dedicated international research, but still important to note, that cultural experiences provide an essential though often intangible basis for individual wellbeing and represent a multifaceted resource that powers important societal and economic drivers.

As Abigail Gilmore underlines in Raising our quality of life: The importance of investment in arts and culture1, “with improved learning and health, increased tolerance, and opportunities to come together with others, culture enhances our quality of life and increases overall well-being for both individuals and communities”. Museums play a key part in this cultural role. As research from the University of Melbourne and Museums Victoria highlights, “regularly visiting museums contributes to emotional wellbeing – providing a sense of connection, optimism and hope, self-esteem and resilience, support, quiet, rest and sanctuary, social capital and relationships, meaningful pursuits and by providing a safe, rich environment with access to arts and culture”.2

The development of art for health settings and of social prescribing within museums, “supporting the health of our communities through museum engagement3, with patients being referred to cultural institutions to support their wellbeing, conveys a growing awareness and focus on this value of cultural experiences for individual and collective wellbeing.

As a part of the cultural experiences that museums provide, exhibitions – as well as the satellite programming they can foster – can contribute to the role of cultural institutions as “facilitators of health and wellbeing in communities”

The global and multi-layered crisis has had a serious effect on the health and wellbeing of many people around the world. It has also instigated a strong demand for empathy from organisations’ stakeholders at large. In this context, the wider societal role of museums, including the mission to care for the most vulnerable and protect community wellbeing, is being brought to new light, all within a challenging environment where many institutions are facing unprecedented pressure on resources.

As a part of the cultural experiences that museums provide, exhibitions – as well as the satellite programming they can foster – can contribute to the role of cultural institutions as “facilitators of health and wellbeing in communities”, beyond “their educational and leisure value4. As stressed by Rebecca Jackson in her article: “the growing realisation of the potential of museums and galleries to have a positive impact on the health and wellbeing of communities presents a significant opportunity for them to develop programmes and exhibitions which reflect the diversity of experiences within communities and look to develop new ways to engage new audiences”.4

Providing safe and pleasant environments

How can exhibitions contribute to this core role of cultural institutions in the current context? The lengthy pandemic situation has strongly impacted stakeholders and practices in the production, hosting and consumption of cultural experiences. “Having safety protocols to make people feel safe and mandatory mask requirements are new necessities in a pandemic-impacted world.5 Formidable efforts have been invested by exhibitions teams around the world to adapt and transform the conditions of experiences to welcome audiences to safe, reassuring and pleasant environments. Adapting exhibitions has been, and continues to be, a major challenge, notably for experiences involving tactile and hands-on elements, but teams worldwide have been innovative in their ability to come up with creative and effective solutions. Notably, this has been enabled by a unique sense of community that has been widely seen, with a desire to share practices through articles, webinars, online meetups and even cross-team assistance throughout the industry.

As a result, in the often very large galleries, which are by their nature already well suited for physical distancing, the commitment to new protocols, with capacity restrictions and timed entries, has made temporary exhibition spaces and the exhibitions they feature well-thought-out environments for safe cultural experiences. This is particularly true for the display of international touring exhibitions, which are often designed for large spaces, and already conceived for major footfall; reduced visitor flows in such large environments make them ideal. Also, as intrinsically flexible experiences, designed by international teams who are highly experienced in tailoring designs to suit hosting galleries and expected footfall, they can easily be adapted, notably to increase distance between exhibition modules and components where required. The inherent agility of development teams and the flexibility of sets, enable fully responsive transformations reacting to the needs of host institutions and protecting audiences, which makes travelling exhibitions a uniquely safe proposition in the current context.

Exhibitions can provide space for discussion, awareness building, and ultimately meaning on issues that matter and urgently need to be addressed – contributing to build the institution’s relevance to contemporary audiences.

Providing meaning and relevance

Beyond their ability to provide safe physical environments, new temporary exhibitions – and, amongst these, incoming travelling exhibitions – can also support the wellbeing of visitors and organisations’ stakeholders with content. These exhibitions, and the programming surrounding them, can provide content to audiences that resonates with the concerns and issues that have become a focal point, or have been emphasised by, the unprecedented health and social crisis, such as climate change and sustainability, health and viruses, social inequality and discrimination. Exhibitions have the potential to channel some of the movements that are spreading throughout global societies. They can provide arenas where ideas can be heard and build empathy with communities locally and beyond borders. They can provide space for discussion, awareness building, and ultimately meaning on issues that matter and urgently need to be addressed – contributing to build the institution’s relevance to contemporary audiences, as “exhibition topics should be relevant to the lives of community members and spaces beyond museum buildings should be used as venues”.6

Considering the pressing need for institutions to convey attention on contemporary debates and issues, it is interesting to explore the potential for the diffusion of exhibitions that respond to the pressing needs of dialogue, awareness and knowledge development on local, national and global scales. These include existing travelling exhibitions that already address these issues, as well as temporary exhibitions that were not originally designed for touring, but might have touring potential, as they present such a timely wealth of knowledge and engagement that could be shared. These also include new exhibitions that may be collectively designed with curators from different institutions to jointly provide meaning with multiple curatorial perspectives and societal angles, leading to co-produced touring projects.

Bringing in a travelling exhibition that presents latest research or a fresh perspective on a critical topic can be particularly effective for cultural organisations that might not have the in-house expertise, financial means or time to develop a complete exhibition conveying such relevant themes in the necessary time frame.

Providing a safe escape

As most people all over the world are stranded as a consequence of the pandemic, exhibitions, permanent and temporary, also have the potential to contribute to the wellbeing of visitors by providing an escape. “When we enter the quiet sanctuary of a museum, we are separated from the whirl of everyday life2,a point further underlined by Shannon Mac Mahon7, “museums are reopening to a new audience: locals eager to ‘travel’”. They are places of choice where access is offered to a “window to travel during the pandemic”, offering visitors’ explorations designed to transport them away and whilst also ‘travelling’ safely.

With worldwide travel restriction for the foreseeable future - possibly in the long term - travelling exhibitions can provide an opening to share cultures and experiences from across the globe to a local audience who cannot travel abroad. This is currently our main driving force behind our current programme and we are fortunate enough to be able to implement these going forward.

Max Riksen, Touring Exhibitions Manager,
Auckland War Memorial Museum.

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As a core resource for temporary displays, travelling exhibitions are a key solution to tap in to bring safely, in local cultural spaces, the world, and moments of escape, to local audiences, in a variety of manners. They indeed have the potential to enable, for instance:

Some exhibitions can even provide an intrinsically healing experience, immersing the visitor in a space that favours contemplation and reflection, and even sometimes meditation.

Some exhibitions can even provide an intrinsically healing experience, immersing the visitor in a space that favours contemplation and reflection, and even sometimes meditation. One Sky, Many Worlds: Indigenous Voices in Astronomy, for example, an exhibition created by Ingenium and Nomad Exhibitions with a consortium of indigenous Knowledge Keepers from around the world, is notably being conceived in the manner of a star medicine teaching and healing lodge, ‘speaking to mind-body-heart-spirit’.

Designed, exclusively or not, with foreign audiences in mind, and often as global explorations, these experiences are ready-to-display realms for discovery which can respond particularly well to the urge of local audiences to travel and escape, both now and in the future. Certain audiences might indeed not be willing or able to travel for a while, even when risks gradually decrease. Some might not be able to bear the financial costs of international travel for a longer time. Some might not be willing to travel as a result of the lasting impact of fear and anxiety triggered by the pandemic. Some may well have discovered more regional landmarks that they will prioritise to begin with, when they get back into travelling habits. In such a complex and changing context, where opportunities to travel and perceptions of travel are extraordinarily altered, touring exhibitions can be a meaningful answer.

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