Comment: Putting culture to use in the community

FROM health to justice, museums have a new role, says Joanne Orr

The Shetland Museum. Picture: PA
The Shetland Museum. Picture: PA
The Shetland Museum. Picture: PA

Museums and galleries hold a crucial place at the heart of Scotland’s communities, from small volunteer-led organisations, like Dumfries & Galloway Aviation Museum, to recognised collections of national and international importance at institutions such as Shetland Museum. But the needs of our communities are changing, and as well as protecting and promoting Scotland’s material and intangible cultural assets, museums have a core mission to deliver on social responsibility agendas.

Museums are one of the world’s most trusted brands: communities and individuals not only entrust them with their physical treasures, but also nominate them as guardians of memory and identity. As trusted places, museums and galleries can reach out and work with those struggling with mental health challenges and with those on the margins of society. Scotland’s museums offer life-changing experiences, working with health and social care bodies.

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Reminiscence work has been widely recognised within research and care communities as having a direct, positive impact on older people. Football Memories is a partnership between the Scottish Football Museum and Alzheimer Scotland which changes the lives of dementia sufferers, their families and carers. The project offers professional training for volunteers, enabling them to use football reminiscence to work with people with dementia. Using photographs from the recognised collection at the Scottish Football Museum helps older people to stimulate their memories and engage with their peers, families and the volunteers. The project has run nationally since 2010, and currently more than 90 groups meet in day centres, football grounds, care homes and community venues across Scotland.

This museum project, like many across Scotland, also makes an important contribution to its volunteers: 60 per cent of the workforce in Scotland’s museums is voluntary. Recent research commissioned by Museums Galleries Scotland has shown the transformative effect of volunteering: by giving back to their communities, volunteers increase their confidence, skills and knowledge, and find it easier to express their individual value to the local community.

Realising Potential, a project run by Inverness Museum and Art Gallery, the Scottish Prison Service and Fife College, works with inmates at Inverness jail. The project has helped prisoners to express themselves in a meaningful way while learning about Scottish history, raising self-esteem and developing skills. Cait McCullagh, curator at Inverness Museum and Gallery, says: “Participants have valued the positive contribution the work has made to their mental health. The work has helped inmates to explore their attitudes to life, and to build positive relationships.” 

The project additionally demonstrates the strength of partnerships between museums and health and social care providers. The work aligns with the 2015 organisational review of the Scottish Prison Service, and delivers on Going Further: The National Strategy for Scotland’s Museums and Galleries. Museums Galleries Scotland is supporting museums to deliver a national programme working within this type of partnership.

This has been clearly expressed by the establishment in 2014 of the Cantie (Happy) Museum, a community of practice to help share ideas to create a sustainable future, with the well-being of our communities at its heart. Peter Stott, committee member, has said, “Cantie Museum’s mission is to generate well-being without costing the earth. Your happiness quotient isn’t measured by the amount of money you’ve got to spend on trying to be happy. It’s about taking an active part in the world and community around you.”

By forging partnerships with health bodies, public services and higher education providers, Scotland’s museums and galleries make significant contributions to the well-being of the nation. Museums Galleries Scotland supports museums to deliver on social agendas traditionally associated with local authority programming. Given the increasing pressures on local authority resources, new and creative approaches that can unlock the potential of delivery through cultural provision, such as museums, need to be considered.

• Joanne Orr, CEO, Museums Galleries Scotland