Redefining museums for an ageing population
We all know that healthy ageing is closely associated with maintaining ongoing engagements with family, friends and the community. Yet often loneliness and social disconnection are major problems for older people. For those working in the aged care sector, finding supportive service providers and maintaining a range of choices for residents can be a major challenge.
However, an area of rapid development is the cultural heritage sector, which is reshaping its role in our ageing societies. It is a sector facing significant changes driven by the rise of digital technologies, which are changing the nature of both the museum and the visiting experience. Museum professionals are engaging with neurosciences to understand aspects of the physical environment that can confuse people with neurodegenerative conditions such as dementia. The now well-developed concept of the “museum-in-a-box” is a good example of this type of innovative practice.
Typically, the museum-in-a-box involves museum staff putting together a selection of exhibits for a specific audience and then going out to locations to deliver a museum-based experience. The actual mix of exhibits may depend on the type of museum and its available collection but some customisation for age is usually built into the exhibit selection process. This makes the museum-in-a-box a potentially therapeutic tool that cultural heritage institutions can contribute to the health and ageing equation.
The museum visit or the museum-in-a-box experience are deeply social experiences in their own right, involving discussion, enjoyment, exploration and interest - all presented in a non-judgemental environment by trained museum professionals. Older people get more access to the things they always liked doing or to things they may not have had access to in their younger years.
The Australian Museum, for example, has developed a series of ‘reminiscence’ boxes for older audiences with varying degrees of cognitive and functional impairment. The logic is of course that this experience can be made very specific in terms of time and place by selecting particular items to match the intended audience and experience.
Experiences can also be adapted for diverse audiences in our multicultural community and, if we add language to the equation, the level of support and engagement can be neatly tailored to fit audiences. This has to be a benefit in Australia when speakers of some languages and dialects can find themselves quite isolated as they age, as family move away and as close friends or community members themselves age. More explicitly, the dementia experience can be greatly enhanced and supported through strategies such as this, including the museum visiting experience and in-language support for museum-in-a-box.
Around the world, museums are working on collaborative, innovative exhibition experiences. The Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York pioneered engagement with people with dementia in the 1980s when it introduced the “Meet Me at MOMA” campaign, which has since developed into a substantive international program with links here in Australia.
This illustrates the growing international scope of work and innovative practice in this space. As the population ages, cultural engagements offer a kind of care which is often unique in what it offers participants. Future developments are likely to be much more research-informed as evaluations occur and academics pay closer attention to this field. But in the meantime, the social element and the use of cultural artefacts closely aligned to an individual’s personal history offer an important contribution to the healthy ageing and quality of life of older people in both community and residential care environments.
Dr Hamish Robertson is a geographer by training with experience in health services, aged care, cultural competence and museums. Dr Robertson completed his PhD on the geography of Alzheimer’s disease and is interested in spatial science applications in the health, ageing and disability sectors. He is the editor of the book ‘The Caring Museum’ and has been published across multiple platforms including Ageing Australia and The Australian Hospital + Healthcare Bulletin.