The contribution of arts and culture to well-being and good health has been in the news recently.
In an article in the Guardian, the Chair of Arts Council England, Sir Peter Bazalgette, argues that the arts have a powerful role to play in increasing health, easing the pressures on the NHS and potentially saving hundreds of millions of pounds in public health care costs. This theme is further elaborated in the Arts Council England’s January 2015 publication ‘Cultural Activities, artforms and wellbeing’ co-authored by Daniel Fujiwarra and Michael McKerron.
Well-being is associated with life satisfaction, happiness and meaningfulness. But the New Economics Foundation (NEF 2009) has developed a well-being hierarchy which provides greater definition. They distinguish between social and individual wellbeing. In this blog today, I want to focus on personal well-being, which NEF associates with positive feelings such as vitality, self esteem, competence, autonomy, engagement, meaning and purpose.
The good news is that users of museums and galleries (who constitute 52% of the English population) describe their experience in ‘well-being’ terms. In a major critical review as part of the Cultural Value Project, Carol Scott of Carol Scott Associates and Prof. Richard Sandell and Jocelyn Dodd from the University of Leicester’s School of Museum Studies, interrogated two decades of UK studies to discover how users described their experiences in museums.
We found that the users describe museums as a well-being experience, one that generates enjoyment, pleasure, stimulation and inspiration. It can be energising and uplifting as well as calming and healing. In line with the NEF model, museum experiences can make people feel ‘alive’. An enhanced sense of self often results. People describe feelings of personal ‘dignity’, of pride, affirmation, confidence and confidence. In their own words:
I have always liked art galleries because the atmosphere was calm compared with home.... It has shown me how to chill, I am much more relaxed and well happier!
...it makes me feel alive when I look at art and things. Because I feel like I'm a working, functioning human being...
The first thing I saw, I felt, was- a refugee person can be something in this country -I felt proud of myself.
It’s changed my ideas about myself - I would actually feel capable now of going in and knowing I had something to offer a local group.
So investment in museums and galleries is paying dividends in terms of the quality of the experience and its positive outcomes for users. The next stage is to examine whether individuals’ positive museum experiences accrue to the public realm and result in positive health impacts.
There are limited, but promising, indications that this is an evidential base worth exploring. In 2010, the Culture and Sport Evidence Programme (CASE) used Taking Part data to determine whether there were positive correlations between sport and cultural participation and subjective well-being. It found in the affirmative (2010, 36) suggesting that a similar analysis of museum and gallery participation could yield useful results towards proving that museums are contributing to the public health of the British population.
 National Health Service in the UK
 New Economics Foundation (NEF). 2009. http://www.nationalaccountsofwellbeing.org/learn/what-is-well-being.html