Cover Story - Namaste - July 2018


How museums are attracting new audiences with creative ways to enhance guests’ well-being

by Juliana Gilling

On Saturday mornings, visitors can stretch out in style with yoga classes among the artwork at Newfields, home of the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA) in Indiana. Yoga is one of a diverse range of offerings designed to boost guests’ health, happiness, and well-being.

Newfields’ yoga events reflect a wider trend, as museums and galleries across the world are presenting themselves as restorative spaces with programs to support people’s wellness. Mindfulness workshops, uplifting dance parties, drawing tours, Alzheimer’s cafés, farm-to-table cooking classes, and early-morning openings for guests with autism are among the initiatives underway around the world.

New Wellness Approaches at Newfields

“Yoga at Newfields is a great way to invite new people into our campus,” says Preston Bautista, Newfields’ deputy director for public programs and audience engagement. “The classes encourage community members interested in wellness—but new to visual art—to visit Newfields for the first time, and then come back again and again. New participants and non-members make up around 50 percent of each class. Yoga also allows our core audience to experience art in a different way.”

Museums have always celebrated the rejuvenating qualities of art—and have been considered inspiring, contemplative places—but Bautista believes change is happening around “how we are engaging people with works of art.”

Newfields started offering yoga sessions inside the IMA in 2013, as monthly experiences or part of larger museum events. 

1807_cover_2“People enjoyed them so much that we expanded our offerings to weekly classes in 2016, thanks to the solid partnerships we’d developed with local yoga instructors,” says Bautista. “We opened up the practice in five additional gallery spaces and started outdoor sessions.” 

Classes run for six months of the year indoors—rotating through the IMA galleries—before moving outside in the spring and summer months, allowing guests to explore The Garden and Fairbanks Park. Sessions accommodate 20 participants inside and 30 outside. Classes start at 10 a.m., an hour before the 152-acre campus opens to the public. The aim is to “provide a quiet and tranquil environment to help our guests unwind and appreciate all that Newfields has to offer,” says Bautista.

‘Seasonal Affective Disco’ Beats Winter Blues

This past winter, Newfields launched another innovative program: “Seasonal Affective Disco.” To combat the effects of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), Newfields invited guests to get into the groove with early-morning dance/exercise classes featuring a resident DJ and a movement instructor; coffee, juice, and nutritious snacks were made available. 

The attraction encouraged guests to bring friends and families along to the 7:30 a.m. discos. The program was designed to give people “an extra boost of movement and socialization in the dreary, cold month of January,” says Bautista. Newfields had a psychologist on site to provide further support for guests.


The Alzheimer's Cafe at the Children's Museum of New Hampshire is a supportive gathering for people living with an Alzheimer's diagnosis and their care partners. Each month they welcome special guests like this opossum and its handler from the Center for Wildlife in Kittery, Maine. (Credit: Children's Museum of New Hampshire)

Develop Dementia-Friendly Destinations

Museums and galleries, including Newfields, are coming up with creative responses to an aging population. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) Global Health Observatory data, global average life expectancy continues to rise, and, according to the WHO World report on aging and health, the number of people over the age of 60 is expected to double by 2050. Older people may experience age-related health issues, however, and social isolation is an increasing problem, especially among those affected by a dementia diagnosis.

Museums and galleries have a long-standing tradition of outreach to senior centers, assisted living facilities, and nursing homes. Reminiscence work based on object handling is widespread. Structured museum visits are another option. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, New York, hosts “Met Escapes”; during these gallery tours, visitors with dementia and their care partners can engage in handling sessions, art discussions, and interactive and multisensory activities.

Newfields has partnered with the Alzheimer’s Association for a tour called “Meet Me at Newfields.” It allows individuals with early-stage Alzheimer’s or dementia, plus a care partner, family member, or friend, to enjoy an afternoon at Newfields. Guests can participate in a facilitated conversation about artwork from the collection led by IMA docents. 

“Art appreciation and social opportunities help enhance the relationship between persons with a dementia diagnosis and care partners, as well as providing a way to develop new friendships with fellow participants,” says Bautista.


Case Study: 

‘Art and Wellbeing Weekend’ at Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand

Kate Button, senior advisor public programs at Te Papa, shares how the museum’s “Art and Wellbeing Weekend” delves into themes of wellness and mindfulness through art, discussions, and workshops:

In March this year, we opened Toi Art, the new art gallery within Te Papa Tongarewa Museum of New Zealand. One of the major commissioned artists in the new gallery, Tiffany Singh, wanted to explore the theme of art and well-being. Following discussions with her, we created this artist-led public program.

Through a series of workshops, we’re exploring themes of mindfulness and well-being through scent, sound, and touch. Artist and mindfulness practitioner Ella Brewer will work with participants to develop an experiential understanding of mindfulness through relaxation, movement, and materials found in Tiffany Singh’s “Indra’s Bow” artwork (including beeswax, amethyst, goji berries).

Tiffany Singh will lead a workshop on the colors of the chakra in nature and in art, identifying which best resonate with people individually. Alchemist Yvette Sitten will take guests through a scent immersion workshop, where they’ll experience how scent has the power to evoke memories and activate the brain. People also have a chance to get messy through mindfulness through play with clay.

Tackle Loneliness and Isolation

Paula Rais, vice president of development and community engagement at the Children’s Museum of New Hampshire (CMNH) in Dover, New Hampshire, was convinced an Alzheimer’s Café (inspired by a similar facility founded in Santa Fe, New Mexico, by Dr. Jytte Lokvig) would be a “perfect fit” for the museum. 

CMNH’s Alzheimer’s Café provides a safe, supportive, and judgment-free setting where people living with the disease and their care partners and families can spend an afternoon with those on the same journey. It runs for two hours on the third Thursday of each month in a museum classroom that’s converted into a café setting. Guests can socialize, enjoy refreshments, and join in presentations, performances, and recreational activities. There is no cost to attend.

“When we first started the café seven years ago, only one couple attended. Gradually, word got out, and now we have 15-20 guests at the café,” says Rais. “It offers people an opportunity to be out in the community for a social afternoon in a vibrant, friendly place. We focus on the person, not on the condition they are dealing with.”

A study measuring the benefits of visiting the café, produced with Keene State College, concluded guests enjoyed the experience. As one attendee put it: “[The café] is like a window to my future, and much more informal than a support group. It’s lighter, and it helps me prepare for where I’m heading.” 

Isolation affects other groups, too. CMNH offers “We All Belong: Art and Friendship Go Hand-in-Hand,” a ­program that brings together adults who are learning English as a second language, refugees, immigrants, and their children (over 5 years old), with museum members’ families. The goal is to create a warm, inclusive community through stimulating art classes, which are offered free of charge. 

Share Recipes for Success

Recipe sharing is one of the unexpected benefits to have come out of the “We All Belong” program. Links between diet quality and well-being are well-known, and “food is a way to make connections and build bridges,” says Rais.

CMNH’s food programs help parents navigate the maze of food options, devise nutritious meals, and entice children to become more involved with healthy eating. “Anyone Can Grow Food” helps families learn how to grow and harvest their own fruits and vegetables. The museum partners with Hannaford Supermarkets for “FoodWorks” sessions on topics including healthy eating and handling food allergies. “We have food preparation workshops so parents and children can work together,” says Rais.

Greensboro Children’s Museum in North Carolina offers an “Edible Schoolyard” program, including a garden-to-table cooking school where children can discover nutrient-packed super(hero) snacks. Families can also sample culinary delights in the “Teaching Kitchen” at the Children’s Museum of Denver in Colorado. 


Yorkshire Sculpture Park hosts monthly "Art and Social" events for adults 55 and older, where they can build outdoor sculptures, identify trees, or make pottery. (Credit: Yorkshire Sculpture Park, Copyright David Lindsay)

Yorkshire Sculpture Park Offers Mindful Moments

Rachel Massey, arts and well-being coordinator at Yorkshire Sculpture Park (YSP) near Wakefield, United Kingdom, is “an enormous believer that cake is incredibly good for your well-being—it features in all my programs!” There’s a whole line of thought around hospitality and well-being, and the importance of making people feel welcome.

Massey says she believes museums and galleries have a “unique opportunity to provide activities that make people feel better” without stigmatizing or labeling them. YSP’s well-being provision has two main strands: one is a public program anyone can access; there’s also a funded program focusing on targeted interventions.

Working with a mindfulness expert, YSP began with a project called “Still Looking.” Small groups of people start with a guided meditation in the galleries, then go outside to look at a piece of art together. 

“It’s different from our other work at the park because we don’t teach people anything about the artwork at all,” explains Massey. “We sit on little folding stools outside in the park, even in the winter. We give everybody a waterproof poncho, a hot-water bottle, and a blanket. When they’re snuggled up, we sit and look at the artwork, noticing the textures, the colors, the scale, how it feels to look at it, and whether it brings up any thoughts or emotions.” 

She’s found people often develop emotional relationships with the artwork, returning to revisit the sculptures. 

“Subject to Change” is one of YSP’s projects with target audiences, in this case adults who have experienced mental illness. In partnership with the South West Yorkshire Partnership NHS Foundation Trust, YSP has been working with the same group of people for a year. Every couple of weeks, participants have lunch at the park, take a walk, and then make something. 

“They started off wanting to make their own artwork, and now they’re working more collaboratively on projects for an exhibition that we’re going to have in the Learning Café in the summer,” says Massey. The sculptures act as a conduit, allowing people to open up and then express themselves through their own artwork. “People are now at a stage where they feel so safe and comfortable at YSP that they’re booking onto our public events,” she says.

COLIBERATETips to Make Your Attraction More Mindful

With all of the stimulation and exhibits found at museums, Alastair Somerville, sensory designer and facilitator of fun at Acuity Design, recommends taking a look at how to declutter and better utilize spaces for the comfort and well-being of guests:

  • Find your wasted spaces and understand how they can be places for recovery—to enhance calm and reduce anxiety.
  • Talk to your regular visitors to find valuable lost corners and corridors that can be used to take a break and recharge. Make sure staff and volunteers know about these spaces to direct guests.

Gill Crossland-Thackray, co-director of Positive Change Guru, encourages museums to think of mindfulness as an opportunity to allow guests to “be” in the museum rather than simply “do” it: 

  • Visiting a museum is a time to turn off tech and enjoy carefully curated collections, while observing textures, colors, contrasts, symbolism, and form.
  • Discover what a piece evokes for you by approaching each one with a beginner’s mind, taking note of your reactions to each exhibit as you view it.

In general, visitors are attracted by the variety of programs at YSP. At the “Art and Social” monthly events for over-55s, guests might find themselves building outdoor sculptures, identifying trees, or making pottery. 

“You have to appeal to people’s interests to snag them. Before they know it, they’re booking onto new activities,” says Massey. She ensures each session includes well-being benefits and is carefully hosted, which is crucial to developing people’s trust and confidence. 

For the United Kingdom’s National Museums & Wellbeing Week in March, YSP’s program included “Rest is Radical.” Guests could relax in hammocks, using “looking kits” (featuring colored lenses) to see the world in a new light. “Room to Breathe” walks, led by a psychotherapist and general practitioner, proved popular. 

YSP also takes part in Slow Art Day, an annual international event ( YSP’s contribution this year included “Nightfall in the Woods,” a meditation at twilight. “People like sitting on their own in a woodland in the dark, knowing that there are other people there if they need them,” says Massey. 


Small Changes, Big Results

Drawing brings people together at the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam, Netherlands, with the #startdrawing campaign. 

“On weekends, we hand out free notebooks and pencils to encourage people to draw inside the museum,” says spokesperson Joost Geerts. “By drawing, you start to look closer and better at the art. We organize free drawing tours, as well.”

Museums and attractions can create magical moments in subtle ways. Massey, also an artist, produces “Other Ways to Walk” cards for YSP, which offer suggestions such as “follow the edges.” Guests pick cards to add an element of surprise to their day. 

“People love them and find themselves noticing different things,” she says, proving any experience can be meaningful. 

“A coffee in front of our Sutphin Fountain on a beautiful spring day may be enough to shift someone’s state of mind,” says Newfields’ Bautista. He encourages museums and attractions to embrace change and new ideas: “Try small experiments first, like book club and yoga. Learn more about your audiences and the ways they may want to engage with you. Partner with local organizations that do work around well-being, such as nursing homes and hospitals.” 

With well-being becoming a priority worldwide, there’s an opportunity for attractions to produce new offerings—and re-frame existing ones—for audiences who want to lead happier, healthier lives.

Funworld Contributing Editor Juliana Gilling covers the EMEA attractions industry (mindfully). Contact her at


Case Study: 


Manchester Art Gallery, United Kingdom

Manchester Art Gallery (MAG) has established an identity as a “mindful museum.” MAG was one of the first cultural organizations in the United Kingdom to appoint a dedicated health and well-being manager, Louise Thompson. She works with mental health and charitable organizations, delivering creative projects based on the U.K. Government Office for Science’s “Five Ways to Wellbeing” with a focus on recovery.

More recently, the gallery built a program based around prevention, with mindfulness at its core. “We support people to learn skills that will improve their health and well-being,” says Thompson. The public program consists of regular—and free—mindfulness workshops. “We know mindfulness is really effective at helping people handle stress in their lives, which is probably the number-one trigger for common mental-health problems,” she says. “My ambition is that everyone in Greater Manchester will see Manchester Art Gallery as a place to come and look after their mental health.” 

MAG’s team runs continuing professional development (CPD) events, stemming from connections with cultural organizations across the country that want to learn more about health and well-being.

MAG also launched “And Breathe...,” an exhibition about mindfulness that inspires guests to linger longer. It involved some “radical” decisions, such as introducing comfortable sofas, armchairs, and foldable stools into the gallery environment. As a result, the MAG team had to hang the paintings lower than usual. They did away with labels beside the exhibition pieces, freeing people to simply appreciate the paintings. “It’s much more of a personal, sensory, present-moment experience,” says Thompson. She hopes to extend the mindfulness approach throughout the building. 

“Take Notice,” a 30-minute mindful meditation workshop, takes place in the gallery over a lunchtime. “We get a big mixture of people coming to that,” Thompson says. “Slow looking” works with everybody—even curators and art experts, who are just as likely to discover something new.

“Mindful Marks” events happen every season. Adults are encouraged to listen to a specially compiled playlist (inspired by a piece of art) and sketch their responses to the sounds on sheets of white paper covering the gallery floor. 

There’s also a monthly “Open Doors” event, inviting children with autism and their families into the building before it opens to the public. 

“Opening up early one day a month is such a simple but powerful gesture, it makes people feel accepted and welcome,” says Thompson. 

She recommends front-of-house staff receive awareness training around mental health, autism, and dementia.