Another digression: I’m managing a project looking at whether engaging with museums can have a positive impact on the wellbeing of older people. Surprisingly, once I started looking I managed to find a great deal of information on the topic. (Fortunately someone in Glasgow had done a fair bit of the literature research already [O’Neill, 2009].) Studies based on long-term, large populations show strong statistically-valid correlations between participation in culture and improved health and wellbeing, using a variety of different indicators [Bygren et al., 2009, Wilkinson et al., 2007]. The source of uncertainty comes from the mechanisms underlying the correlation. Authors have speculated and drawn on relevant lab-scale research to suggest reasons why the correlation might actually be a causal effect: more on this later.

The arts sector (including both fine and performing arts) has long been arguing the value of the arts to the health and wellbeing of people. Arts Council England (ACE) has produced a number of papers summarising research in the field [Staricoff, 2004a &b]. Just recently I attended the launch of a regional arts and dementia network hosted by Equal Arts, whose purpose is to bring together people from all the relevant sectors to move this issue forward. During this event I listened to an artist speaking: she was using the rhetoric of ‘artists and the arts are special and can bring something special to ordinary people.’ This is not the first time I’ve encountered this language: a while back I listened to a talk given by the chief executive of ACE to the RSA [Davey, 2008] on the value of the arts and more recently read an edited work on the value of the creative industries in the wake of the ‘credit crunch’ [Wright, 2009]. In all these cases an appeal was made to the special-ness of the artist: the role of the artist in giving us new ways to see (ourselves, the world around us), in putting us in touch with other aspects of being. I have to confess that I am deeply sceptical of this. It feels like that the arts sector is claiming for itself some shamanic role for a population that has largely given up on conventional religion or spirituality. Being conventionally spiritual, I can’t accept this assertion by the arts sector. Also, being a scientist I think that there are others who can similarly bring other aspects of life to the fore in ways that artists cannot. Moreover, in the light of my current work, I just don’t think this demand for recognition will cut much ice with people in the health- and social- care sectors. In the end we need a political persuasive argument and that will almost certainly involve some cost-benefit analysis.

In a similar vein, the cultural heritage sector is also beginning to turn its attention to the contribution that it can make to the wellbeing of the populace, particularly the older population, through its collections and spaces. Recent books, such as Chatterjee’s on ‘touch’ [2009], and the launch of GEM’s ‘Sounding Out Your Heritage’ site attest to this growing interest. My project is part of this and there is more on the way. The problem is that like the arts sector, the cultural heritage sector wants to claim for itself something special. It wants to claim a unique domain and contribution to wellbeing. I don’t think this is justified or useful either.

So… I want to find a language or framework that is not sector specific but that transcends the different sectors. My colleagues in the health sector are deeply wary of wellbeing indicators and scales as being fraught with difficulty and as being possibly meaningless. There needs to be another approach.

Back to the research… What is interesting about the work by Bygren and Wilkinson and the work by Cohen and his colleagues, is that they look for underlying neurological and biological mechanisms to explain the statistical correlations that they observed. For instance, Bygren and Wilkinson observe that reducing stress reduces oxidative damage to DNA, this in turn can reduce the incidence of cancer. Cohen argues that experiencing a sense of mastery over a task can stimulate the production of T and NK cells which, respectively, improve bacteriological defences and help reduce the incidence of cancer. The papers I’ve read so far indicate that this field, sometimes referred to as Psycho-Neuro-Immunology, remains contentious; but it seems to fit well with much of the other bits of neuroscience I’ve been reading.

My reading of this is that there may be a variety of activities that will in different ways activate the same mechanism. Hence, going to a gallery might reduce stress and be a positive social experience but so might going for a walk in the park with a group of friends. What I think we need is to shift the focus away from the sector specifics and away from indefinable notions of wellbeing and towards a language that focuses instead elements of an activity that a participant engages in which, research indicates, has positive consequences for health.

So… what are the elements of experience that have a positive consequence? Based on the research papers, discussion and personal anecdote, here are some suggestions:

• An experience of calm;
• A positive social experience;
• An experience involving mild physical exercise;
• A creative experience;
• An experience that involves (re-)learning and gaining mastery over tasks;
• An experience of being absorbed in a task;
• An experience that gives esteem to the participant, their lives and their memories;
• An experience that involves the sharing of skills;
• An experience that opens participants up to new experiences.

These are not specific to a sector or activity and different activities might evoke different balances of them. They are probably not exhaustive but I think they provide a useful way of thinking about what we do.


Bygren, L. O., Johansson, S.-E., Konlaan, B. B., Grjibovski, A. M., Wilkinson, A. V. & Sjöström, M. (2009) ‘Attending cultural events and cancer mortality: A Swedish cohort
study’, Arts & Health, 1 (1), 64-73

Chatterjee, H.J. (ed.) (2009) Touch in Museums: Policy and Practice in Object Handling, New York; Oxford: Berg

Davey, A. (2008) ‘The Courage of Funders: risk and innovation in the age of artistic excellence’ (Public Lecture, RSA, 3rd November 2008) Available at http://www.thersa.org/events/audio-and-past-events/2008/the-courage-of-funders-risk-and-innovation-in-the-age-of-artistic-excellence [Accessed 31/10/10]

O’Neill, M. (2009) Cultural Participation and Health, Culture & Sport Glasgow. Available at http://www.csglasgow.org/services/CulturalParticipationandHealth.htm [Accessed 20/05/10]

Staricoff, R.L. (2004a) Arts in health: a review of the medical literature (Research Report 36), Arts Council England: London, Available at http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/publication_archive/arts-in-health-a-review-of-the-medical-literature/ [Accessed 20/05/10]

Staricoff, R.L. (2004b) Can the arts have a positive effect on health? A review of the medical literature, Arts Council England: London, Available at http://www.artscouncil.org.uk/media/uploads/documents/publications/positivehealthsummary_phpFaA0Nj.pdf [Accessed 18/06/10]

Wilkinson, A. V., Waters, A. J., Bygren, L. O., & Tarlov, A. R. (2007) ‘Are variations in rates of attending cultural activities associated with population health in the United States?’ BMC Public Health, 7, 226ff

Wright, S., Newbigin, J., Kieffer, J., Holden, J. & Bewick, T. (eds.) (2009) ‘After the Crunch’ Available at http://www.creative-choices.co.uk/upload/pdf/After_the_Crunch.pdf [Accessed 31/10/10]

About Bruce Davenport

Research associate at Newcastle University. Previously a museum educator and researcher.
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