The impact of art-viewing and museum object handling on the subjective wellbeing of people with dementia and their carers

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Previous research indicates art-viewing and museum object handling are effective in increasing subjective wellbeing for people with a range of health conditions.  People with dementia and their carers attended a two-hour session at the museum comprising two art-based activities (art-viewing and object-handling) and a social activity in the form of a refreshment break.  They completed subjective wellbeing measures before and after each activity.  These were five rating scales ranging from 0-100 indicating how happy/unhappy, well/unwell, interested/not interested, confident/not confident and optimistic/not optimistic the person was feeling at that moment in time.

Funding sources
This was a doctoral research project funded by Canterbury Christ Church University.
Timescale and delivery dates
Preparations for the project began in June 2013 (planning, feasibility of recruitment and NHS ethics panel approval); eleven museum sessions (data gathering) took place between November 2013 and September 2014; analysis of results was completed in March 2015.

Context, location and setting
Sessions were held at The Beaney House of Art and Knowledge, Canterbury, Kent and facilitated by the Head of Programming and Collections with assistance from volunteers.  Participants were recruited from a local NHS memory assessment service.  

Description of the arts activity

The average size of each museum group was 6 people (3 people with dementia and their respective carers) ranging from 4 to 8 people.  Participants were met and welcomed in the museum foyer by a volunteer.  They were then shown to a dedicated room for group work and greeted by the facilitator, who gave an outline of the session schedule and answered any questions.  Wellbeing rating scales were completed by participants; volunteers assisted with one-to-one explanations where necessary.
The museum object handling activity lasted for 45 minutes. The facilitator presented the objects one at a time and participants held, examined and talked about them as they were passed round.  Objects included Victorian carbolic soap, an Ancient Egyptian scarab stone, an Iron Age axe head, a fossilised Megalodon shark’s tooth, and an 18th century tinderbox.  The facilitator asked questions about participants’ present impressions of the objects; reminisces and anecdotes were welcomed.  Participants completed the wellbeing rating scales at the end of this activity.  

After a 25-minute break, during which the group had tea, coffee, biscuits and general social conversation, participants completed the wellbeing rating scales again.  The facilitator and volunteers then showed the group into one of the gallery rooms and invited them to talk about their impressions of some paintings which had different content and styles, and a potential for visual discovery.  This comprised the art-viewing session which lasted for 45 minutes.  Participants completed the wellbeing rating scales at the end of this activity, after which they were invited to complete a feedback form about their experience of the session as a whole.  They were then given a pack containing a letter thanking them for their participation, a local museums brochure, a postcard of one of the paintings, and a list of questions similar to ones used in the session to use on future museum visits if desired.  

Details of the project participants

Participants were recruited from a post-diagnostic group for people recently diagnosed with dementia and their family members provided by a local NHS memory assessment service.  Sixty-six participants took part: 36 people with early to middle stage dementia and 30 carers.  The average length of time since dementia diagnosis was 9 months (range: 2-24 months).

Project management

Roles and responsibilities
Dr Johnson was the lead researcher responsible for designing and planning the project, Ms Culverwell identified suitable participants, Ms Robertson set up and facilitated the sessions, Dr Hulbert provided support in statistical analysis of the data, and Prof Camic supervised the research project as a whole.
Quality assurance

Measures were implemented to reduce bias, including using the same facilitator for all sessions and counterbalancing the order in which activities were completed to account for any order effects.
Ethical considerations

The project was submitted for a proportionate review and was approved by the National Research Ethics Service (reference 13/LO/1353).  No substantive ethical issues were identified by the review panel.  Sessions were conducted focusing on present impressions of the art; questions about knowledge or past events were avoided with the aim that both people with dementia and carers could contribute equally.  No upsetting or unanticipated responses arose during the sessions.  There was no cost to participants.

Participants were offered the opportunity to register their consent at numerous stages throughout the recruitment process: opting in to receive further information about the study whilst attending the memory assessment service and explanation of the information and consent form by the researcher over the telephone prior to attendance at the session.  Participants were given the opportunity to withdraw from the study at any point. 

Evaluation methods and findings

Descriptive statistics indicated that participants’ subjective wellbeing tended to increase after participating in either art-based activity (museum object handling and art-viewing), and paired-sample t-tests indicated these increases were statistically significant for people with dementia as well as their carers, irrespective of the order in which the activities were completed.  In line with previous research, it demonstrated the value of using art-viewing with people with dementia and their carers, while a novel finding was that object-handling may also be a useful activity for people with dementia.  Neither carers nor people with dementia experienced a significant increase in subjective wellbeing from the refreshment break.  Feedback from the questionnaires was overwhelmingly positive.  Participants appeared to value feeling welcomed, participating in an enjoyable and novel activity in community setting away from a medical institution.

Published in Dementia in 2015.  Please see the following reference for full article:  
Johnson, J., Culverwell, A., Hulbert, S., Robertson, M., & Camic, P. M. (2015).  Museum activities in dementia care: Using visual analog scales to measure subjective wellbeing.  Dementia, advance access doi:10.1177/1471301215611763

Supported using public funding by the Arts Council England