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Improving mental health and wellbeing through art with Heather Thomas

Improving mental health and wellbeing through art with Heather Thomas

In Episode 92 of The Art Engager podcast, I’m chatting to Heather Thomas, the Head of Learning and Engagement at the Lightbox Museum and Gallery in Woking, UK.

Heather has been at the Lightbox for the past 11 years, working with and for communities.

She has a specialism in working with people living with dementia and those who are socially isolated alongside working with children and families.

Heather talks about how their Art and Wellbeing programme of creative and therapeutic workshops provides opportunities for those that would otherwise not be able to access arts and heritage services.

We also discuss the Lightbox’s Open Mind Tours, monthly tours of the current exhibitions in conjunction with a local mental health charity that encourage open conversation and personal discovery.

The programme has a retention rate of 80% of repeat participants, with positive outcomes for wellbeing and resilience.

We talk about how these tours prioritise connection over content and are wholly participant-led, open conversations that take their cues directly from the participants, not the facilitator.

We explore how art should be for everyone and based on personal discovery.

Finally, we talk about the outcomes of the programme and the Lightbox’s plans for the future.


Claire: Hi Heather. Welcome to The Art Engager podcast.

Heather: Hello.

Claire: So pleased you could be here with me today. So could you tell all our lovely listeners around the world where you are right now?

Heather: Yeah. So I am in Woking, which is in the leafy county of Surrey, just outside London. The air is okay outside the M 25, I promise , and it’s not so sunny today. But, uh, obviously looking forward to having a chat

Claire: brilliant. So tell everyone what you do and where you do it. Yeah,

Heather: so I am the head of learning and engagement at the Lightbox, which is in Woking. And uh, my role is predominantly to help people be creative, learn about history and heritage, their local heritage, and yeah, just enjoy looking at an art gallery and exploring creativity.

Claire: So I got to know about your work through an article that was in the Journal of the Museum’s Association in the uk. Um, and I found out all about the Lightbox. So the Lightbox I think is a pretty special organisation. Could you tell us a little bit about. The kind of work that the Lightbox does, what kind of an institution organisation it is?

community because they are the ones who helped us become who we are.

They’re the ones who wanted an art gallery in their area, wanted there to be local heritage for people to learn more about their area. And so work began in the late nineties to create a building and our building is actually a Marks Barfield architect designed building. And in 2007 we opened to the public. And since then it has been a lot of different activities for the community, working with the community and consistently making sure that they feel that they are referenced and can use us as a service, I suppose.

Claire: And it comprises an art gallery and this historical museum in, in one centre, is that right?

Kenneth Wood, who made the Kenwood mixer, up until present day things I say present day, I’m gonna feel very old, but Paul Weller and the Jam Paul Weller is from Woking. So again, we’ve got parts about that history as well. Yeah. We also have three different art gallery spaces, which change every four months or so.

So we have our smallest gallery space, which does change actually quite frequently, which is open to community, open to people to hire. That’s a really important part of kind of our charity is to be able to, you know, earn income. And then we have our two other gallery spaces. One is our largest, the main gallery and our upper gallery space, which is sort of medium sized.

yeah, we have done all sorts over the years, so yeah, from, from some really well known names to some people that, you know, people should know a bit more route maybe.

Claire: Brilliant. And there are, I think reading about the work that the Lightbox does, I think there are values behind your work and especially the work you do in learning engagement. So could you perhaps explain some of the, the guiding principles or values behind what you do?

Heather: Yeah,

I think art and wellbeing has always been high on our agenda.

So again, locally we had a local, um, hospital previously called an asylum in the area, and that is again, part of our local history museum. And so since we opened our doors in 2007, we’ve always worked with people who, uh, maybe are living with mental health issues who maybe are. Isolated for any reason. So that’s always been a really important part of what we do.

we do really well is being able to offer opportunities to people to be able to learn something new, whether that’s creative or historic, and be able to help themselves to feel that they are contributing in whatever way to themselves or to other people.

Claire: Valuable insights there into your work.

And I think what drew me as well to the work of the Lightbox are some of the projects you do. So, um, you work a lot with the community, as you’ve already said. You do a lot of projects with the community. One of them is the Open Mind projects, and this immediately stood out to me. This podcast is all about engaging with art and the benefits of engaging with art.

So can you tell me a little bit about that project, why you started it, and perhaps some of the aims behind it?

history gallery has a whole section called Behind Closed Doors, which is, um, how people saw the mental health providing really, uh, it was kind of hidden.

People didn’t talk about it. We have a lovely, beautiful display that was created by people who were involved in hospital before it closed in the nineties. And so I think that’s been a really important part of, of, you know, the work we do. Open Mind started in 2016. And again was, we’ve done various projects previously with various groups, but this was the first time we’ve done something on such a long-term scale I guess.

who have got different mental health needs, needs different things from sessions.

So we started working with our local Mind organization, which obviously they are a huge charity and, you know, hugely important, um, across the country. . And most recently that has turned into a company called Catalyst in our area. So we’re still working with the same group. We’re still working with the same people, but they are just sort of overseen by a different company now.

And the Open Mind Project is again, all about them being able to come into us as a safe space. For them to have a cup of tea, coffee, maybe a cake if they want one. And, and then give them more confidence. Sort of foster that in conclusion that they kind of need and want. They can chat to each other.

exhibitions, which means they learn more about art. They can learn a bit more about the artist’s lives. So we do like to talk about artist’s lives and how they, how they lived.

They like to know the ins and outs, not things you can read on the label. Um, that’s part of the, you know, why we take them for tours around, I guess, because they could read anything on a label. But actually it’s those little bits of information that just make it come alive a lot more and. , they then also potentially can get engaged with artists.

about the big famous artists, it’s also about local people being able to show what they can do.

Claire: So when you work with Catalyst and they say, we have a group for you coming into the museum, how does it work? How many people would be in a group? How do you start up conversation? How do you make them feel that they’re in this safe space that you called it? How do you create that atmosphere for them to connect with?

Heather: I think it’s really important. We’ve got our cafe on the ground floor, which as we all know is, is kind of the hub of a lot of organizations. Uh, they come in, they, I meet them there, um, or my colleague does, and we have a chat to them while they’re having a cup of tea or coffee, and again, if they want a snack,

them, how they’ve been. , they might wanna talk to us about some things that they’ve been up to. So it’s very kind of friendly. It’s just catching up, uh, as if it was someone that you’d just seen in the street, really.

And then what we’ll do is we will set, you know, once everyone’s finished their drinks, uh, take them up into the gallery space that we’re going to look at. So again, every time it’s something different because generally, you know, we probably get about half of the group who come every time. And then the other half might pop in and out, so it can be up to about 18 people. So quite a large group should be walking around some of our gallery spaces. But the nice thing about that is that, again, as say some people come every time, so they’re learning something different every time. And some people come in and, and the important part of that is that everyone feels safe and comfortable even if they haven’t been for a while.

everybody’s name because if they’re new uh, as long as they know me and as long as they feel comfortable and know where to go if they don’t feel comfortable, I think is really key to that.

Our Visitor Experience Team are very good at making everyone feel very comfortable as soon as they walk in the building. Our volunteers as well, we have a huge range of volunteers who are integral to how we work, and they are very good at making people feel very comfortable very quickly.

Then we take them up into the gallery. I might do a short introduction but it kind of depends on the show, because sometimes there’ll be so much to look at that you can just see them, their eyes going, you know, darting off. They just wanna have a look around first to, to gauge their own interest.

that we do, all the programs we deliver are led by the people that are attending more than they’re led by us.

They are the ones that are in control of what they want to learn about or they don’t want to learn about potentially sometimes. Yeah.

And then it’s more about having open discussions, maybe going around and talking to them about artworks they really like. More importantly, the artworks they don’t like, because that’s much more interesting sometimes, isn’t it?

Claire: Do you think there it’s curiosity is very much a driving factor in these discussions? Cause it sounds like they’re, they’re quite personalized.

They, uh, they can be quite free form mm-hmm. as well. Yeah. And you can kind of go where people’s interests are letting them take you, for example. Yeah.

So is that fair? ?

Heather: Yeah, I think so. I think, um, whenever I’ve talked to other people about how to run one of these sessions, I’ve just sort of said, you have to kind of be led by them.

and this. And actually you get through one thing of that, and they take it in a totally different direction. So you have to be very prepared to think on your feet to just go with what the people are leading you to go with and not be prescribed to talking about what you want to talk about. This is not a lecture. This is a discussion and an open conversation with the people that you are with. And there is also some people who are not as communicative, so it’s finding ways to communicate with them that isn’t asking them questions.

It’s, you know, movement. It’s making sure that they can get a chance to see everything they want to, and they don’t feel that they are being asked too many questions or being poked for information. But, it’s more kind of about how they are wanting to learn from that experience rather than what you want or think that they should be maybe learning.

And I think, listening to what you say, you are giving them a sense of agency as well.

You’re giving them a sense that they can make choices here about what they go and look at what they choose to engage with. What is it about the art that is actually helping them to engage with you and have these conversations? What does the art do?

Heather: That’s a big question. Claire . .

Wow. Uh, I think for me it’s art is so different and so expressive for everybody that looks at it. People can look at the same artwork and see something completely different. And think completely differently, feel completely differently about something. I could look at something and not like it because I don’t like the colors or the shapes or the way it’s painted, say, but someone else could look at that and say, well, I really like the color or the shapes, the way it’s painted.

it can be, so open for so many people is sometimes not overthinking it, I think is a real key part of that. Uh, don’t get me wrong, I love art and I love artists, but sometimes I think that people can think it’s not for them because they’re not able to critique it in the same way as maybe a critic can, and that’s okay.

Art is not about being right or wrong. It is subjective and it’s about how you feel about something. How many times have we looked at an artwork and felt something and then read the label and realized that the artist meant something completely different and gone oh, I didn’t feel that at all. I felt this, and actually, is that wrong?

confident that actually they have just as much to say as the person writing the label, as the person writing that critic’s opinion in the newspaper. And we shouldn’t feel that one is wrong and the other isn’t.

It is more about being able to enjoy something. Just like when you are making art, isn’t it? And shouldn’t it be more about the process than the outcome? So again, when you come to, you know, talking about art and looking at art, it should be about the process. Maybe you stand in front of a painting for 20 minutes, maybe you stand in front of it for 2.

That’s fine, and it might be that you enjoy the one that you stood in front of for two more than actually the one you stood in front of for 20, or vice versa, it doesn’t make either right or wrong.

It can be about your personal reaction to it.

And as you say, that can be completely different to what the label says or what somebody else might think as well. Mm-hmm. , um, I’m really interested in hearing. What kind of outcomes you’ve had in terms of wellbeing or resilience from people taking part in this program. You say people come back time after time, and I assume that must be having a positive effect.

Heather: Yeah, I think over the years, again, we’ve done various evaluation like everyone does with these projects, and I think one of the really nice things that we found actually when the pandemic hit was that uh, the people that were coming in person couldn’t because we were closed, but they still wanted to learn about artists and how they worked.

getting information about artists and learning? And I think it’s a bit of both. Obviously they would much preferred to be able to come in person, but they couldn’t so it was that ability to still learn through some of the things that we could share.

We’ve had people come and go over the times. We’ve had a lady who’s been coming since we first started. She comes with a support worker. She doesn’t have much in communication. So again, it can be quite difficult to work out what she’s liking, what she’s not liking.

Um, she doesn’t make eye contact. So you are, you know, you are kind of working with a different set of ideas really, of how to help her engage with the art on display. Over the years learnt that she loves flowers, loves nature, anything with flowers and nature in, I know that she’s gonna love. Um, but that is just by getting to know people.

learning and engagement department in any museum and gallery across the world is getting to know people and keeping that engagement with them. Um, but I also know that. She will linger in front of some things that she likes, whereas she won’t if she doesn’t like it.

So I think it is a really important part of. Working with people is getting to know personalities and the way that they do things.

Claire: It strikes me as you are talking, and from some of the things you’ve said earlier on as well, that a lot of your work is about observation. That you are really having to pay careful attention to people and notice things about them, how they are behaving in the gallery, how, how they’re reacting to certain artworks, their preferences, picking up on body language, all those sorts of things.

use questionnaires in the same way because people don’t have English as first language or they struggle with words, or they struggle with, you know, Putting together a sentence on paper.

So you have to do a lot of observational things. There’s an arts observational scale, for example, for just that reason. So when you get to know personalities and people, because again it is an art of being able to get to know people and anyone who works in this field would say exactly the same thing, that you have to build rapport and build it very quickly with people because people like people, people don’t trust in necessarily a big organization, but they might trust in the people who work for it.

So that is a real important part of working with people and engaging them in something. If they like you, they are gonna be more than likely to want to listen to you.

over content.

Mm-hmm. , I think too often in museums and galleries we receive training on the content. We talk about the content all the time, but it’s about the connections we make, the connections we make with people, and it’s, it’s about people rather than audiences or visitors, which I think is a generic term.

It’s not talking about the people that we’re actually dealing with and that we want to connect with. So I applaud you for keeping that as a, as a priority in your work. Um, , what’s next for you? So many exciting projects that you’ve already done. Too many for us to talk about in today’s episode, but yeah, what’s next?

Heather: We’ve built a really strong track record of working on, as say, our art and wellbeing program, which includes Open Mind, which includes our Art in Mind, which includes working with homeless people, people socially isolated.

And I think. One of the really lovely things about the journal article was it actually showed how much we are doing, which is great.

I think we have a, a tendency to, especially in learning engagement positions, thinking that, oh, well everyone’s doing it. But actually it’s been quite nice to be at the forefront of that.

We are really lucky that we have all these different exhibitions and displays, we also get to work with the Ingram Collection and they’re really involved in wanting us to use it for projects, which is great because that’s a really amazing opportunity to be able to have the artworks in the room potentially when we’re doing projects.

the people that we can be and pushing forward rather than just sitting still.

You know, making sure that we’re always enabling people to live healthy, happy lives and learning something and being creative along the way, I think is what we do and what we will continue to do.

Claire: Fantastic. Well long may you continue the wonderful work that you are doing. Can you just share with listeners how they can find out more about you, how they can reach out to you? I’ll put a link to the article that we’ve mentioned and any websites in the show notes as well.

Heather: Yeah, so our website is the light uk, and on there is all the information about our art and wellbeing programs and all the other programs we deliver as well.

keep an eye on those as well.

Claire: We will do.

Thanks so much for coming on the podcast. Cheers Heather!.

Heather: Thank you.