Dementia Friendly Museums in Wakefield

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In April 2013, local government restructures gave local authorities responsibility for public health. Wakefield Council’s Health improvement Team now shares a directorate with museums.

One of the many important strands of the health improvement agenda is how we can all work better with the increasing number of people who have dementia. All of Wakefield Museums staff have now had Dementia Friends training through the Health Improvement team, however, we recognised that there is more that can be done to open up our collections to this group of people. Alzheimer’s UK visited Wakefield Museum to advise on our spaces. Some of this was simple, but necessary, such as providing better signage. However, this is generic, and could apply to any public service.

We recognised that many people with dementia find it difficult to get to our museums, and so we thought of ways of bringing our collections to them, in a sustainable manner. The aim of this project was to provide a resource that could be used by care home staff and other people working with older people in Wakefield to facilitate the sharing of memories.

It was decided that five museum reminiscence boxes should be developed which would be available for loan through the library service to organisations that work with the elderly. The boxes were to contain specifically sourced objects relating to local events and industries as well as other multi-sensory resources such as appropriate CDs and pictures etc. for use by care staff. The resource needed to be as easy as possible for people to use and be inspired by, and facilitating this became an essential part of the development. The boxes were to be accompanied by suggested activities and advice to help care staff use the resources to provide a meaningful and enriching experience for older people, including object handling, sharing stories, talking and listening, as well as art activities such as poetry, music art and craft.  Different activities were suggested to make the boxes easy to use in a variety of settings and different user needs.

The planned outcomes were to alleviate depression, improve memory and decrease feelings of isolation as well as enable carers to better understand the older person’s past life and introduce new ways of engaging with them.
The project development was run by Wakefield Museums from January to March 2015, funded through partnership with Wakefield Council’s Health Improvement team.

Description of the arts activity

Many local authority museum services provide a reminiscence service, which in some cases takes the form of loan boxes, and so this was a model that could be relatively easily researched for best-practice. A loan box services enables all the relevant council services to work together to provide a joint community resource that uses museum objects, library resources as well as information from the Health Improvement service in order to reach a wide range of locations and groups.

We commissioned a knowledgeable freelancer to research best practice (desk study and interviews) and use this information to develop a set of themed reminiscence boxes. These include specially selected handling objects, as well as photographs and healthy living materials.

The boxes were piloted in care homes and dementia cafes, and this prompted the production of structured activity suggestions allowing the boxes to be used in a variety of ways.  They are now a held by Sandal Library – a specially commissioned new dementia friendly space – where they can be booked out in the same way as library books.
The boxes are proving incredibly popular with the target group, and the library has asked if we could provide them with more.

Details of the project participants

As part of the formative evaluation of this project two groups were visited:
The West Ridings Care Home and The Alzheimer’s Society Forget-Me-Not café in Ossett
Staff were consulted in both cases and in addition, people using the forget me not café were consulted as to how they might use a reminiscence box and what they thought of the potential contents.
The boxes were put together and then pilots were conducted in all of the Alzheimer’s Society dementia cafes in the Wakefield area, as well as the West Ridings Residential Home, providing both residential and community settings for the work.
The 186 participants from pilot sessions were:

  • People with dementia attending forget me not cafes with an age range of 50s to 90s
  • Carers of people with dementia with an age range of 20s to 80s
  • Care home residents with age range of 60s to 90s

Project management

The project was initiated and managed by Wakefield Museums, funded through Health Improvement budgets, and supported by Wakefield Libraries.  The freelancer, Polly Williams, was selected for her experience of arts projects working with people living with dementia, and as she had done some similar museum work in the past.  The work was done at no cost to pilot participants.
The residential care home and dementia cafes were offered the free pilots and the evaluation and feedback on the contents was from the group leaders and volunteers, particularly about how they would use the boxes and activity structure.

Evaluation methods and findings

Pilot evaluation was conducted by a combination of freelancer observation and group leader interview.  The main lessons learned (and acted upon) were:

  • The importance of objects with a range of sensory qualities
  • Written contextual information about the objects needs to be available, but in large print and on a yellow background for readability.
  • Themed activities make the boxes stand out from other reminiscence resources as it made them much easier to use for the staff.
  • Themed activities should be developed for group work as well as more structured activities for one-on-one reminiscence
  • Instructions need to be very clear and explicit for doing simple creative work as staff are often unfamiliar with this sort of work
  • Wrapping objects makes them difficult to use, and so packaging is important
  • Real, worn objects are much more powerful than replica new-looking items

We are looking to develop a further box for people living with more advanced dementia.

A full case study was written by the freelancer on completion of the project (unpublished).
This project has also been written up in West Yorkshire’s Museums: Making a Difference (2016) available online here:

Supported using public funding by the Arts Council England