USING ART & OBJECTS TO LEARN WELLBEING SKILLS & IMPROVE MENTAL HEALTH WITH LOUISE THOMPSON
Today I’m really excited to be chatting to Louise Thompson – a museums and wellbeing consultant as well as the health and wellbeing manager at Manchester Art Gallery for the past 9 years. We’re talking how about art and objects can be used to learn wellbeing skills and improve mental health.
Louise has over 12 years experience of arts and health practice and is hugely passionate about using culture and creativity to improve people’s wellbeing.
Louise’s work and some of the wonderful projects she’s worked on recently – the Becoming a Mum art therapy project during lockdown and the pioneering Mindful Museum at Manchester Art Gallery.
how artworks can create a sense of community and how art and cultural collections can make us feel less alone and more connected.
how attitudes to mental health have changed over the past few years and how museums, art and objects can play a role in improving wellbeing and mental health
mindfulness and the particular type of mindfulness that informs Louise’s work – trauma-sensitive mindfulness – and how cultural institutions are brilliantly placed to teach mindfulness in a trauma-sensitive way.
Louise shares so much value in our chat – make sure you listen to the whole episode to catch it all!
Louise Thompson on Instagram
Louise Thompson on Twitter
[00:00:03.080] – Claire
Hi, Louise, welcome to the Art Engager podcast.
[00:00:07.060] – Louise
Hi, Claire. Thank you for having me.
[00:00:09.230] – Claire
You’re very welcome. So can you tell us where in the world you are right now, where you’re recording this from?
[00:00:16.800] – Louise
Yes. I am in Manchester in England and I’m currently at home in my back office, but I’m in the wonderful city of Manchester.
[00:00:27.840] – Claire
Lovely. And the sun is shining as well, which is lovely to hear. So we’re going to talk a little bit today about the work that you do and how you came to be doing what you’re doing and the sorts of groups you work with. So perhaps you could start by telling me a little bit about yourself and how you came to be doing what you’re doing now.
[00:00:50.720] – Louise
Yeah. So I am a museums and wellbeing consultant, and I work with museums and galleries supporting them to develop and deliver health and wellbeing programme. So that could be workshops, projects, events, exhibitions or displays. And I work across the UK, and I also I also am the health and wellbeing manager at Manchester Art Gallery. Manchester Art Gallery is the city’s art Gallery here in Manchester, and I’ve been doing that role for over around by 13 years, actually gosh, that’s an awful long time. So I’ve got to row health wellbeing manager at Manchester Art Gallery, which I love.
[00:01:42.260] – Louise
And also, as I work as a consultant working with other museums galleries.
[00:01:47.320] – Claire
Wow. It sounds like you’re busy. Have you found you’ve been very busy in the last year or so?
[00:01:53.860] – Louise
Yes. I think that a lot of museums and galleries and cultural institutions have realised that post-Covid, in this recovery stage from the pandemic, that there’s going to be a lot of focus on wellbeing and mental health. So yeah, I have got a lot busier in the last 18 months now before I was already quite busy before then. But yes, I’ve had lots of enquiries. I think museums and galleries are starting to realise their potential in responding to something like a health crisis. So that’s really, really good and really exciting.
[00:02:36.720] – Claire
Yeah. I absolutely agree. I think over the last ten years that I’ve sort of been working in a similar field to you. Not exactly the same. But I’ve noticed a real sea-change and what used to be something that was quite sort of left field research is now becoming much more mainstream. The fact that we can use the collections the art objects in museums to actually foster wellbeing, foster skills, all these sorts of things that I’ve been talking about for a very long time. I think have come into sharper focus, perhaps in the last year,
[00:03:11.680] – Louise
Definitely. And I think just in the last decade as well, Claire, you’re absolutely right. And I think that is reflective of our attitudes towards mental health as well. I think conversations have been happening in around mental health a lot more, even in the last five years, and they ever have been before. There was loads of stigma attached to mental health and and wellbeing, and that’s because that’s reduced and the conversations are opening up. It’s a much less taboo subject to talk about. I think that has had a sort of ripple effect.
[00:03:46.560] – Louise
And now we see cultural institutions thinking and showing that they can be a part of that conversation as well.
[00:03:52.880] – Claire
Yeah, that’s really interesting. And thankfully, that conversation is now more out in the open and much more acceptable for more people to be talking about mental health issues as well than it was before. So perhaps you could share with me some examples of projects you’ve worked on, perhaps recently or in the last few years.
[00:04:14.800] – Louise
Yes. So one project that I’ve managed, which is part of my health & wellbeing, manager role at the art gallery, was a project called Becoming a Mum. And that was an 8 week project working with women who became mothers in lockdown. And it was an art therapy project to working with an art therapist called Sarah Harrison Grieves, situated here in Manchester. Really, the idea where that came from was when we went into locked on. I was almost haunted by the thought of women becoming, you know, bringing home the baby from the hospital and just being in complete isolation and not knowing when the isolation was going to end.
[00:05:05.460] – Louise
And there were reports about women giving birth alone without their partner, which just sounded inhuman to me. But, you know, even just bringing home the baby and not having the family around you, friends around you neighbours, you know, all that social network, a social connection which is so important for women’s mental health, especially maternal mental health. At the Gallery, I thought we’ve got to do something about this. So we delivered a 8 week art therapy course it was on Zoom. So it was online, which is something we had never done before, and we thought about every and all potential risk that could happen.
[00:05:54.300] – Louise
But we were really glad the fact that it was a hugely successful project. The women went on to meet each other after locked on lifted. So they met up independently informed their own social support network. And what we actually did in the sessions was we chose artworks from the gallery’s collection that related to themes around motherhood. And it was very much focused on this high women and everyone, really, that we’re fed this narrative around motherhood through culture, through media, through the stories are older maternal figures tell us and the stories that they hold back from us, especially our own mothers, perhaps.
[00:06:47.140] – Louise
And we sort of have this narrative around motherhood being this joyous, love-filled, idealistic time. And actually the truth and realities of motherhood can be very far from those things. There’s joy, there’s excitement. There can also be a lot of challenging emotions, sadness, sorrow, grief, rage, anger. And these are the stories that we don’t generally talk about openly because mother, who’s supposed to be this beautiful, pure joyful time. So we looked at artworks within the collection that linked to some of those things, like grief and transition, and, you know, self acceptance and self-compassion.
[00:07:35.680] – Louise
And we explore the artworks. We talked about them and the concepts behind them. And then the art therapist asked each of the participants, each of the mums, to make an artwork, their own, their own choice. It could be totally open, brief, but that was connected to those things. And then at the end, each person talked about their artwork and talked about their feelings and the emotions that linked to that artwork. And it was such a great project to do. Claire. And I’m really glad that we were able to do it and reach women because it was all the stories that we got from the mothers.
[00:08:22.560] – Louise
What they told us was it was the most isolating time, the loneliest time they’ve ever felt. And just being – there was a lot of grief that was talked about being robbed of that experience that they expected to have and so many emotions. I mean, there’s so many emotions anyway, when it comes to becoming a mum, but during Covid and during lockdown, it was very heightened and intense. But we got great outcomes from that project. We used different wellbeing measuring scales, and we were really pleased to see a huge improvement in the women’s well being at the end.
[00:09:03.720] – Claire
It sounds wonderful. And I’m just looking at some of the artworks on the page. I’ll put a link in the show notes 9https://manchesterartgallery.org/learn/becoming-a-mum/). But some of the artworks that you use from your collection are wonderful sparks to conversation, I imagine. And another thing that I noted as well was that you put on it. You don’t need to be good at art to take part. And did you find there was some resistance, perhaps from some of the women who were joining joining the sessions, or maybe a little bit of fearfulness about, you know, perhaps not knowing anything about art or museums in particular.
[00:09:37.990] – Louise
Yeah, and that is something that comes up actually, a lot in my line of work is that that nervousness around you being good at art. So it is something I regularly say when promoting an event or project. This is not about being good at art. None of us are Picasso, and that’s not the focus anyway. It’s all about the process.
[00:10:00.000] – Louise
And enjoying the experience and being in the moment. But, yeah, a lot of women when we did that first initial assessment spoke about ‘I have done any art since school, and I wasn’t very good at it back then’, but we just had to reassure them that that wasn’t a factor, that wasn’t important. And that seemed to do the trick.
[00:10:22.660] – Claire
That’s brilliant and art can sort of create that sense of community as well. When you’re together, discussing an artwork and then discussing your feelings about the artwork, that sort of sense of being as one as a group discovering things is such a magical feeling, as well. I can fully see why they went off and sort of met up in real life afterwards after they’ve had these experiences with art.
[00:10:46.800] – Louise
Definitely. And, you know, there is something so special. I don’t know if you’ve discovered this in your work as well, Claire, but there is something so special about seeing an experience or a state or an emotion depicted in an artwork that might have been created 200 years ago or 500 years ago or 60 years ago, seeing that depicted and thinking to yourself, I’m not alone in feeling this way. You know, someone else has felt this way, someone else 200 years ago has captured this feeling, this state that I’m in and even just connecting to the artwork itself as well as the people who you’re sharing that experience with, of looking at it, exploring and discussing it.
[00:11:37.140] – Louise
You know, even the object itself can have a really big impact on people’s well being. It almost kind of reminds me, you know, when you’re a teenager and you have your heart broken for the first time and you just sit around and listen to, like, love songs, you know, songs about heartbreak and everything, and you think you would want to listen to something cheerful. But actually, you want to listen to someone else’s suffering because it makes you feel less alone. And I think that is the thing that underpins human suffering is that we feel so alone in it and the power of art and cultural collections to make people feel less alone, to make them feel more connected is so immense.
[00:12:21.920] – Louise
And it’s so effective. And I hope that museums and galleries, you realise that.
[00:12:28.080] – Claire
Yeah. Yeah. And what a wonderful positive project and story to come out of lockdown as well, amid so much anguish and so much that was going on in the world to have some sort of positive experiences must have been really wonderful. Thank you for sharing about that. I loved hearing about that project. I’d like to move on if we can, to talk a little bit about the Mindful Museum. So can you tell us a little bit about what the Mindful Museum is and a little bit about your specialism, which I know, trauma-sensitive mindfulness?
[00:13:01.180] – Louise
Yes. The Mindful Museum was a campaign, really, that I started in Manchester. I think about seven years ago, roughly about that time, and it really came about as a result of all the mindfulness-based learning and engagement work that we were doing at Manchester Art Gallery, and we discovered that using mindfulness as a technique to engage with art works not only had really positive effects on people’s wellbeing, but also was this really interesting way to engage with an artwork that we haven’t done before. So with the Mindful Museum was about raising the awareness of mindfulness practice in cultural institutions and maybe about setting some good practice guidelines.
[00:13:53.900] – Louise
We wanted other museums and galleries to consider it as a practice to use in their collections, and we wanted to share our learning and our knowledge and experience around it as well. And we’ve seen mindfulness, which is brilliant, mindfulness has become so much more commonly used practice in cultural institutions, certainly in the UK, and that’s a wonderful, wonderful thing to see. So the Mindful Museum was just this kind of ambition of mine or a campaign to share the learning that we gathered at the art Gallery and to support other museums and galleries to maybe consider consider doing it themselves.
[00:14:43.260] – Louise
My training is in trauma-sensitive mindfulness, and as a mindfulness teacher thought it was really important to be trained in trauma-sensitive mindfulness because the more I researched mindfulness, the more I read about it, I discovered that some forms of mindfulness or I should say, some forms of teaching mindfulness can actually lead to triggering some people and in some cases re-traumatising them if they have experienced trauma in the past. And of course, if you’re delivering a workshop in a museum or gallery, that’s about mindfulness.
[00:15:24.120] – Louise
You don’t know who in that audience has trauma in their background or in their past. As a trauma-sensitive mindfulness teacher, we start from the position that someone in the room has experienced trauma. So you start from that’s your default decision, and then you would practice in a way that allows people to have informed consent. So they know exactly what’s going to happen when it’s going to happen, how long it will last. And are they okay with that? Another principle of trauma-sensitive mindfulness is this idea around choice & control.
[00:16:08.840] – Louise
So it’s really important to always give people an alternative or a choice of do you want to focus on your breath or if that feels a bit uncomfortable, just keep looking at the painting or if looking at the painting feels difficult, challenging. You can get up and leave. That’s okay. If you need a break from the session, just go. So this idea around choice and control is really, really important with trauma -sensitive mindfulness. And another key aspect is about making practices. Making mindfulness practices sensory-based, and this is where art museums and galleries really come into their own Claire.
[00:16:50.850] – Louise
Because we’re all about sensory-based activities. A lot of mindfulness practise focuses on the breath and physical sensations in the body. So a lot of kind of traditionally taught mindfulness courses will be a lot of breath work and a lot of physical body work, and we know the trauma is stored in the body. We know that from years and years of research and studies and that actually bringing our attention into words. Our breathing can be really problematic for some people who are anxious or experienced panic.
[00:17:28.660] – Louise
Bringing people’s attention to a sensory experience is a much more safer way to teach mindfulness. And of course, you walk into a museum or gallery or cultural institution. They’re just a feast for the senses. So we are brilliantly placed as institutions to teach mindfulness in a trauma-sensitive way because we’ve got so much material that is sensory based. You can learn mindfulness by looking at a pebble or a reason. But why don’t learn it by looking at a work of art? How amazing is that? What a privilege and what a treat it is.
[00:18:11.440] – Louise
So trauma-sensitive mindfulness is something I’m very passionate about, and I think as it grows within cultural institutions, we have a responsibility to have an understanding of that and to teach it in a way that is safe and won’t cause any harm to our participants.
[00:18:30.260] – Claire
Thank you for explaining that. And I really love the ideas behind what you just explained – the idea of choice and control – and it really resonated with me because I talk. I teach in one of my courses. We teach all about facilitating discussions around sensitive subjects or difficult histories, and we always talk about setting the expectations and the guidelines so that everyone feels safe and that you’re creating this warm, inviting atmosphere and also giving people the chance to opt out as well is so important, you know, giving people the chance to not participate if something is perhaps emotional for them or triggering.
[00:19:15.420] – Claire
And sometimes we were quite often asking for people to make personal connections to artwork. And as you say, we have no idea what experiences that person is bringing with them to the session. So we have to be very mindful ,to adopt a term, of how we approach that and how we work with individuals on that basis.
[00:19:38.880] – Louise
Absolutely Claire and those key aspects about choice and control are so fundamental. You know, you can’t go very far wrong if everybody in your group or in that session really believes that they have that choice and control like they are in control. That is so important for people who have experienced trauma, because very often the loss of control is an aspect of trauma. So we’ve got to make sure that people feel empowered to make those choices in a session. And sometimes that means I repeat myself 10, 20 times.
[00:20:18.540] – Louise
You know, I repeat that. I repeat myself saying, if you want to go, that’s fine, you don’t have to do this. Or if that feels uncomfortable, just stop. You know, sometimes it takes me kind of repeating it over and over again for people to truly believe it. But yeah, you’re absolutely right. So important.
[00:20:36.460] – Claire
Yeah. Definitely. So we’ve sort of looked at some of the work that you do, and we’ve looked at what a Mindful Museum is, and we’ve looked at mindfulness and the particular type of mindfulness that you work with. So what are the benefits of sort of practising these activities with art and objects in museums? We saw it with the Becoming a Mum art therapy group. You had some great examples of how they felt and what the outcomes were, but sort of in a general, generally speaking, what are the benefits?
[00:21:09.650] – Claire
How can we use art and objects to support people to learn well being skills and improve their mental health?
[00:21:17.000] – Louise
Well, that’s a great question. I think the key aspect here for me is that we have all this material in our collections that if we if we use them in the right way and engage with them in the right way, has full potential to teach people wellbeing skills. And, you know, I mentioned earlier about that feeling of connection, connection and high connected you feel is fundamental to your well being. And I think after the year that we’ve just had, you know, we’ve all experienced that social isolation we realised that night don’t wait like we are pack animals and we are meant to be in a herd.
[00:22:01.660] – Louise
We don’t want to be in caves alone. And I think museums and galleries and are can create conditions for social connection to occur. Learning mindfulness is a wellbeing skill. It’s a wonderful life-long and life-wide skill. And I think if we can support people to learn these skills, there’s other skills as well there’s that cultivating gratitude is a wellbeing skill, reminding people of being active, just learning at any age is so good for our wellbeing and giving as well, being, kind and giving our time, our attention. Our love and museums and galleries is so good for wellbeing as well.
[00:22:53.200] – Louise
So I think cultural institutions, museums and galleries are just the breeding ground for good mental health, in my opinion, although I would say that, wouldn’t I? But I think yet so much potential around that. Being connected to art make us feel connected to other people, to ourselves and to the world around us. And that is as fundamental for our sense of wellbeing.
[00:23:20.160] – Claire
And there’s lots and lots of connections between mindfulness and slow looking. I’ve kind of explored over the past year, and I was sort of reading a lot about the art of noticing, and I think bringing in those sort of skills for people to be able to notice the world around them or to be able to observe and communicate better because, you know, they’ve noticed more details, all those sorts of things I think we can get from these amazing mindfulness experiences, definitely.
[00:23:53.520] – Louise
And you know, what happens in one of our sessions and people come in, they sit in front of the at work. It might be a painting or sculpture. And I talk a little bit about what mindfulness is and why it’s good for our mental health. And then we do a mindful looking practice. That’s where I guide people in looking at certain aspects in the artwork. So we’ll pay particular attention to things like colour, line, shape, texture, composition, all those formal elements within the artwork and training their attention to look in this way, intentionally slowing ourselves down, being in the moment, looking, using our senses, being curious.
[00:24:37.860] – Louise
All those skills will translate when they leave the Gallery. When they leave the Gallery, they’ll still have that training, those skills. And I always make a point of saying, you know, it’s a wonderful thing to sit here and do this with a really interesting objects, like an artwork. But why do this on the bus or do this on the tube or on the next time you’re in a supermarket queue and you’ve got nowhere to go, you’re in a waiting room, you know, do this take notice of what you can see details in the architecture, reflections and puddles, whatever it might be, train your attention to look and to notice.
[00:25:15.840] – Louise
And if you do this often enough, you know, kind of little pockets of pause throughout the day it will have such a significant impact on your health and well being. In museums and galleries, we have the power and we have the ability to teach people a skill like mindfulness. But really it’s about them cultivating that in their everyday life as well.
[00:25:40.120] – Claire
Yeah. And developing a sort of daily habit of looking up and noticing and seeing everything that surrounds us. Yes, I completely agree. I’m so excited because you’re coming to do a class for the membership. The Visible Thinking Membership on the 26 of October. This will also be open to non-members if people are interested. But I’d love you to tell us a little bit about what you’ll be doing in this class.
[00:26:06.760] – Louise
I would love that. And also I’m so excited myself. So yeah. Countdown to the 26th. In the masterclass, Cclaire, I’m going to talk a bit more in detail about the principles of trauma-sensitive mindfulness. Why museums and galleries are the perfect places to practice this form of mindfulness. So hopefully people will go away with a really good understanding about mindfulness itself. But also what makes trauma-sensitive mindfulness different from other traditionally taught forms of mindfulness. And what is the connection between the trauma-sensitive mindfulness and museum collections and gallery collections, as well.
[00:26:54.580] – Louise
And why are we so well-placed to teach this this type of mindfulness? Also, I’ll be doing some examples, some demonstrations of the sessions that I deliver or different museums and galleries. And I’d also just love to get, because I know that you’ve got a far-reaching membership, I’d love to understand what other people experiences of mindfulness or their understanding of it as well. So I’m really looking forward to having that sort of interactive conversation as well. Hopefully, it’s not just me talking at people.
[00:27:37.020] – Louise
[00:27:39.460] – Claire
It definitely won’t be, I can assure you. Very curious group of international educators. I call everyone educators, but within that group, we have mindfulness specialists. We have people who work in the art therapy sort of area. We have people who work as Museum guides, people who work as Museum educators, part of the team, all sorts of people and from all over the world as well. So they’ll each bring their own perspective to the session, which is always really fascinating as well.
[00:28:08.570] – Louise
I can’t. I can’t wait. It’s going to be so good. I love, you know, sometimes I talk about this subject in a sort of very general broad way. So I really love meeting other museum gallery peers and you really get into it, if you know what I mean!
[00:28:24.820] – Claire
No, we will for sure. Thank you for sharing about that. I will put a link in the show notes for everyone listening so that they can go and have a look and find out more about the class. It’s 26 of October at 5:00 p.m.. That’s Amsterdam time. You can find out what time zone is in for you, but they’ll also be a recording if you can’t attend live. Now, louise, thank you so much for this conversation today, but how can listeners find out more about you or reach out to you?
[00:28:53.040] – Louise
Well, I am on Instagram as Louise Thompson. My handle is at @well_mindful_ and I have a website which is wellmindful.com so you can reach me on social media or through my website.
[00:29:10.840] – Claire
Brilliant. And I highly recommend people follow you on Instagram. You have a great account and I look at it every day. So do follow Louise there and look at Louise’s website and I’ll put links in the show notes as well. And that just leaves me the time just to say, thank you so much for coming on to the podcast and sharing your wisdom. You shared so much gold here. It’s been absolutely brilliant. And thanks again.
[00:29:38.180] – Louise
Thank you, Claire, I’ve had a lovely time. Thanks so much.
MASTERCLASS: THE MINDFUL MUSEUM
This interactive, 90 minute masterclass with guest teacher Louise Thompson invites you to learn about the principles of trauma-sensitive mindfulness and how it can applied to deepen engagement with collections.
Louise will talk about her experience of mindful engagement with objects and curating a mindful exhibition in a large public gallery. She also leads some short mindfulness practices using a painting. This masterclass is available in the Thinking Museum Membership.