Curatorial Conversations VI

How might visitors, a high proportion of whose lives are likely to have been touched by the topic, be greeted at a museum of psychiatry? Who might staff the front desk on such a museum, to ensure that visitors feel welcome? At one consultation session on the relocation project, attendees suggested that, as service users, they would feel most comfortable if they knew that front of house staff and volunteers were service users (or former service users) themselves. Indeed, one would hope that a museum of mental health would encourage the involvement of service users at every level. Nonetheless, there are a number of issues around this topic.

First, of course, one must ask whether staff would want their background (whatever it is) to be known or highlighted. While sharing individual stories and memories has often been identified as a way of engaging and inspiring audiences, such personal engagement must be the decision of the individual concerned. In addition, the nature of volunteering in museums may itself be seen as sensitive. While voluntary work has been shown to have a positive effect on mental health, and may also help to bridge a difficult transition between hospital and community for some, unpaid work can also lead (fairly or otherwise) to perceptions of exploitation, or the assumption that people must participate whether or not they wish to, or are even able to. In order to successfully develop a volunteering scheme that is useful to all, we need first to explore exactly how such a scheme would benefit people, and how it can be adapted to fit individual circumstances. What sort of roles would people want to experience? What would they want to learn? What courses might benefit them? And how can we ensure that volunteers feel valued, and that their important contribution towards the museum is recognised? We welcome comment on any of these topics, as well as further involvement at any levelĀ  in the development of a volunteering scheme.

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