MAKING MUSEUMS ACCESSIBLE THROUGH ART THERAPY & WELLNESS PROGRAMMES

INTRODUCTION 

Today I’m so happy to be talking to Richa Mehta about her work. We’re talking about what a mindful museum is, museum-based art therapy and how art can support the development and exploration of identity and connection

Richa Mehta is a certified art therapist and educator working as a museum education and wellness professional at the Louvre Abu Dhabi.

Richa believes that the museum space can be more accessible to marginalised community members, through implementing museum-based wellness and art therapy programming and resources,.

In today’s episode we talk about her journey from the classroom to the museum and her recent studies in art therapy.

We discuss the Louvre Abu Dhabi’s journey to being a Mindful Museum and what this means for the staff and for the visitors, the collection and the museum space itself.

We explore what museum-based art therapy is and how it might work in practice. Richa shares a model of how she views museum-based art-therapy and an adaptation of See Think Wonder that could be used for these sessions. We also chat about how an art therapist would work with any strong emotions that came up in the museum environment.

And finally we talk about how being a third culture kid, and her cultural identity and background has influenced her practice and work today.

So here is our chat – enjoy!

TRANSCRIPT

Claire Bown  00:02

Hi, Richa. And welcome to The Art Engager podcast.

Richa Mehta  00:06

Hi, Claire. Thank you for having me today. It is an absolute honour to be having a conversation with you.

Claire Bown  00:12

Oh, I’m delighted you could be here. So could we perhaps start by talking about a little bit about what you do and where you do it?

Richa Mehta  00:21

Of course. So by trade, I am an educator and a certified art therapist. And I actually currently work at the Louvre Abu Dhabi, which is in the United Arab Emirates. At the museum, I work as a Senior Learning Resources Officer, and I co-lead on the arts for health and wellbeing programmes and initiatives with my manager, Maral Jule Bedoyan.

Claire Bown  00:48

So you’ve got an impressive title. And you work in an impressive museum as well. And you’re newly qualified as a certified art therapist. So could you perhaps talk a little bit about how you came to be doing what you’re doing now.

Richa Mehta  01:04

It’s quite an interesting journey. So if I had to look at my professional journey, I started off as an educator in a classroom. And although it was very exciting and engaging with working with all different age groups, I felt like there was something missing it was that I wanted to actually create the content. So from there, I started volunteering and all of the different cultural spaces and art spaces in the United Arab Emirates. And one thing led to another and I ended up working at the museum, which is a crazy story, I think everyone has their own story. But during that time, mental health was something that I was dealing with personally. And it has been a journey that I still continue to deal with. But it was something where I realised that without knowing, practising photography and creating artworks as an art educator, was helping with my mental health. And I felt like there was that connection. So I started looking for different opportunities and programmes and courses, and almost stumbled upon a couple of options. But the one that really stood out to me was the one that was offered by the Vancouver art therapy Institute. And that’s kind of how I started my journey with art therapy and started realising the true connection between art and its healing capacity. So it was quite interesting. And that’s how I ended up at the museum and bringing it into the museum. It’s yeah, and told you so far

Claire Bown  02:39

Yeah. Tell me a little bit about how you brought it into your work at the Louvre Abu Dhabi

Richa Mehta  02:46

So a little bit about background about the Louvre Abu Dhabi, the Louvre Abu Dhabi is located on Sadiyat Island in Abu Dhabi, in the United Arab Emirates. And our narrative for our collection is about universalism. So it’s truly about exploring the human creativity that connects all of us. In 2020, when everyone was going through collective trauma, we also closed our museum down for three months. During those three months, I really saw that we had a very an internal discussion, because it always starts internally, about how can we help the community, but also how can we help our employees and our community internally. And we realised the concept of mindfulness and empathy. So in June 2020, we actually reopened as a museum as a mindful museum to the community, internationally, as well as locally. But initially, we did start off as saying, we were mindful in terms of space and your safety. And then slowly, we started tapping into the mental, social and physical wellbeing of our guests as well.

Claire Bown  04:02

So, could you explain in a nutshell, what a Mindful Museum is?

Richa Mehta  04:07

So that’s quite interesting. I think the word mindful is defined in several different ways. And in several different languages, what’s really unique about the United Arab Emirates is that we have several different cultures and different nationalities from around the world. So the way that I see it is what is the visitors definition of what it means to be mindful mindfulness as a field, we would think that it comes mostly it’s been talked about in the Western culture, but it actually originates from Eastern practices, and it’s truly about being present. So taking that into consideration, we try to offer opportunities where our visitors could truly be present within the museum space, with its magnificent architecture as well as a it’s artworks.

Claire Bown  05:01

Yeah, sounds so interesting. So perhaps you could give a couple of examples of some projects, of how that might look in practice for visitors,

Richa Mehta  05:10

Of course. So right now, our team, not just mine, but transversely because I tried to also include everyone that has been working so hard in providing a Mindful Museum, we’ve created multiple programmes. And earlier I mentioned, we don’t just focus on the mental well being of our visitors and our community. But we also focus on the physical, as well as the social. So we have several teams, our cultural team has created yoga under the magnificent dome that we have. They also offer kayaking around the museum. [Wow] We’ve also worked, I know, it’s great. It’s quite, it’s quite awesome. I’ve tried everything. We also in the education team, have built on whatever our outreach team was already doing. Um, so shout out to them, because they’ve been really trying to bring in the community and reaching out to the heart harder parts of the UAE and taking the museum to them. But we’ve developed programmes such as mindfulness sessions with Emirati seniors – you know, having conversations, taking them back to memories, oral history. We’ve also developed guides and resources, because obviously, in 2020, we weren’t… a lot of our tourists, as well as visitors weren’t really able to come to the museum. So we really thought about the concept of accessibility. So we developed resources, such as the Mindful Art Moments video, audio, we also developed a Reflect and Express guide. So truly, I think what came to be was the concept of accessibility, how do we provide these wellbeing opportunities to our community?

Claire Bown  07:02

And across the board as well, it seems so many different examples that you’re providing there of different projects and different resources that different types of visitors from different communities can actually tap into whether they’re physically in the museum or outside the museum space as well. So yeah, that’s super interesting. I’d love to dig a bit deeper into what museum-based art therapy is, Could you perhaps talk a little bit about explain how it might work in the museum, how it works in practice,

Richa Mehta  07:35

of course. So currently, we don’t really practice museum based art therapy, but it is a plan that we are working in implementing eventually, we are very heavy based on what well being is. And so that’s already been happening for the past few years, few years transversally. So, museum-based art therapy basically, is a niche field of what art therapy is. So I’m going to start with talking about what therapy is. Most of the times when we think about therapy, we think of it as a talking conversation that’s happening, or an exchange that’s happening between the client and the therapist. It’s a linear relationship, I try to give visuals to everything. And when we talk about art therapy as a field, what happens is you’re bringing art making in the art making process, the image that is created, and it almost becomes a triangular relationship. So now it’s a relationship between the therapist, it is a relationship between the client and it’s a relationship between the image that has been created within that safe space. But when you start talking about a museum, museum-based art therapy programme, what’s happening now is that you’re expanding this triangular relationship. It’s almost like a hexagon, where you actually have the artwork that is in the museum, you have the artist who created it or or the person that created it, and then you have the client, you have the artwork that is created as a response to the interaction with the artwork in the museum. And then you have the art therapist as well. So it’s quite complex, and it’s something that’s still being explored by only a few museum based art therapists around the world.

Claire Bown  09:49

And in practice, this would involve off the top of my head, a conversation about an artwork in a museum, followed by some practical elements of art-making Is that how it normally works?

Richa Mehta  10:03

Yes. So an essential component of art therapy as a field is there has to be an art-making process. Obviously, you talk through therapy, but we’re using art as a communication tool as a responsive piece of work. So if you were to ideally see a session that would happen, that was art, museum-based art therapy, you..it would have to be led by a certified art therapist in collaboration with a museum educator. Collaboration is a key component, because you bring expertise from different parts of the field. And prior to actually providing this session, the museum educator and the certified art therapist would define their roles and responsibilities. And so what you would ideally see is that they would pick a therapeutic theme, or it might be a therapeutic goal that they decide prior. And after that, they would select artworks within the space that help feed to that feed the theme or feed the therapeutic goal. So you take the client, or you would take the participant to the artwork, you know, implement the See Think Wonder strategy, which I’ve kind of modified a little bit, which I can talk about later, which will then lead to a responsive art making activity, which I believe has to be as open-ended as possible, and followed with a group reflection. So most case studies and most articles out there are generally focused on providing group based activities when it comes to museums.

Claire Bown  11:52

Yeah, so you mentioned the variation you’ve made of See Think Wonder, could you tell me a little bit about that?

Richa Mehta  11:59

Of course. So although See, Think Wonder is the number one strategy that most museum educators use, I thought that maybe we could kind of modify it and build off on it and be inspired. And I created the concept of See, Feel and Connect. Obviously, seeing the artwork, and then you have the component of feel is that how, what was that emotional response? Might it be anger, might it be happiness? I think it’s really important to really understand why you felt a certain way, I think humanity, sometimes we tend not to have those moments of reflection. So that’s when the Connect component comes in. It’s like, okay, I felt a certain way. Why is this emotion? Why am I having a strong emotional response to an artwork I’ve never seen before? How can I connect it to my life right now? Or to the past? And maybe it’s time for me to explore it with the facilitator? Or by myself as well?

Claire Bown  13:03

Yeah, it’s so interesting, I love I love the variation there. See, Think Wonder has lots and lots of different variations. And I think that’s one of the beauty of thinking routines is that they can be adapted and varied according to the circumstances you might want to use them in. And I love the idea of See Feel Connect. But I wonder, just thinking aloud here, how would you deal with any, any sensitivity to sharing their emotions or any strong emotions that came up in the museum environment? How would you deal with that as an art therapist?

Richa Mehta  13:36

so that’s really interesting, because as an art therapist, per se, our practice or our ethical conduct, and all the documents that are available, were actually created with the intention of being in a clinical setting. But that’s not the case anymore. Because when you’re talking about museums, it’s a public space. So it’s truly about working and trying to figure things out, and then sharing it with your community, which has been a huge part for art therapists that work in museums. So some of the things that I could implement, or I have thought ethically, would be that I would actually tell if it weren’t come to be or even just participants, I would tell them that if you’re having any certain personal conversations that you might be uncomfortable sharing in public, we could then move from the gallery to the art studio, which is a more private space. So that could be something it’s about asking for their consent prior. And seeing where they’re comfortable with. It’s really about engaging, engaging, actually, with the participants that you have, because you don’t really know what you’re getting. It’s just about thinking on your feet. But what’s also interesting, I just don’t think about the ethical considerations because of us residing in the United Arab Emirates. I really do We’ll also think about the multicultural considerations. And some of the situations that I can think of is that is there an artwork, perhaps that might not be very appealing. For instance, if we talk about certain religions are certain cultures, sometimes figurative images might not be something that they’re very fond of, based on their beliefs and their values. So it’s about really tapping into what your group is, and seeing how you can try and your best to actually meet their goals and meet their needs and wants. And this kind of just all really falls into my concept of being a humanistic art therapist, which is that I focus on the client or the participant, and it’s about them. And it’s not about me. And it also falls under the category of which I always try and repeat several times. And it is one of my beliefs.. is cultural humility, and how do we practice it, and that their truth is the truth at this moment in time, and even if it doesn’t meet my beliefs, and my values, it doesn’t matter, because the only truth is their truth. So that’s kind of how I see it.

Claire Bown  16:24

Oh, thank you for answering that in such detail. I’m nodding my head away here furiously, because yes, everything you were saying about being centred on the participant, not being centred on us as the educator or facilitator, but also having that sensitivity to what may occur in the moment because we’re not sure what people are bringing with them into the museum space, or what an artwork or an object may provoke. So just being sensitive to those moments and thinking about how you might facilitate it in the best way possible. Is all all music to my ears, for sure. You touched a bit on identity there. And I’d love to move on to thinking about how because I know it’s it’s a passion of yours as well. How can art support the development and exploration of identity?

Richa Mehta  17:13

I’m so I could come to this question more on a personal perspective, as a third culture child, myself being so I am, my background is Indian in heritage. But I was born in the United Emirates. I stayed here for a couple of years, and then I moved to Canada for majority of my life. So that really gave me a sense of a crisis of identity, that it was really hard for me to kind of understand, okay, who am I? There are several questions where it really made me question who I was where was in a classroom, actually, where I had students say, Well, okay, well, you’re supposed to know how to make curry or you, why don’t you like spicy food? You know, like, the really the stereotypes that exist? Yeah. I even had a student once in Canada telling me that, oh, did you ride a camel to school as a kid? Because I was in the United United Arab Emirates, and I don’t blame them. It’s the knowledge that’s been passed down for generations, right? So it’s about giving that critical lens to them. But that really just made me question who I was. And it also affected my mental health. And then I think on my 21st birthday, I was gifted a camera and I decided to travel. And as I travel, I started taking a lot of pictures of people of places, of objects of different parts of the world. And I never really thought about it too much and why I was taking those pictures, but I think there was just just one day where I stepped back and realised that every picture that I took, or every art that I created, or photograph I created, was actually a piece of my identity and who I was as a person. So I really understood about how art can really support that. And that made me want to explore, obviously, the field of art therapy when I didn’t know it existed.

Claire Bown  19:22

Has this exploration of your identity, has it moved into your practice? Has it moved into your programmes and your work as well?

Richa Mehta  20:49

Yes, of course. I was talking about a Reflect and Express guide – this guide was created with the intention of okay, we’re going to try and provide something to parents, or educators that they could work with their students, obviously, bringing in practices of art therapy, but mentioning that you’re not really actually doing art therapy, but we’re providing you therapeutic strategies, and prompts which could be inspired by the collection. So some of the themes that I’ve covered in this guide, is identity, relationships. So it is something that I have brought on, continually. And I continue to do so even in articles that I’ve written for magazines as well. And we are actually coming up with a second, reflect and express guide, but for a different audience. So covering daily life themes that talks about self awareness. So I think really, the concept of identity and trying to find yourself and my personal experiences definitely spills over the content that I create, and my practice as well as an art therapist and a museum educator.

Claire Bown  22:12

Yeah, thank you so much for sharing about that. I can’t wait to see how you develop new programmes, how you take your art therapy practice further how you develop perhaps a more museum based art therapy, how your work continues at the Louvre Abu Dhabi as well. It’s been a fascinating chat, but I’m going to wrap it up at this point. how can listeners find out more about you or reach out to you,

Richa Mehta  22:38

I am more than happy to share my email. And if you’d like to share that, I’m always looking for collaborations and I’m always looking for ways to just share stories and practices. And that’s where it starts when you’re able to be accessible to the community.

Claire Bown  22:56

Brilliant. So thank you so much, Richa, for chatting with me today. I could have talked for a lot longer. Thanks for your time. Thanks, everyone for listening, and we’ll see you next time. Bye.

Richa Mehta  23:14

Thank you. Bye

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