Can Museums Strengthen Social Connection?
Museums are involved in serious self-reflection as to their role in society. How do they connect established museum values of preservation, display, and education with newer museum perspectives on societal concerns? During the 2019 discussions about the International Council of Museums' new definition of museums, Paul Bowers from Australia said, "There’s a difference between describing what something is in a static way and describing it in a way that is active, that does something. Our sector has a terrible tendency, I feel, to want to sit in the static, to sit in the nouns. I feel like we need a greater move towards the verbs." (Museopunks Episode 39: A new definition of “museum”?, 2019)
Might one of the verbs, the action steps be towards mental wellness? And could addressing mental wellness, in particular social connection, add to the visitor experience?
One of the most significant issues facing society is mental health. The National Institute of Mental Health says that, "Mental illnesses are common in the United States. Nearly one in five U.S. adults live with a mental illness (46.6 million in 2017). Mental illnesses include many different conditions that vary in degree of severity, ranging from mild to moderate to severe." (Mental Health Information Statistics, NIMH, 2019) Building and developing social connections is one of the ways that mental wellness is increased and mental illness may be decreased. "People who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression. Moreover, studies show they also have higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, are more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them." (Connectedness & Health: The Science of Social Connection, Stanford University Medicine, 2014)
What can museums do to facilitate social connection?
Museums already "do" social connection. Family art programs. Volunteer opportunities. Meet-the-artist events. Could museums do more? Social connection is not just making a new friend, although new friends are great! Social connection is eye contact. Social connection is a smile. Social connection is asking about someone's day. Social connection is thanking someone for their helpfulness. Social connection is paying someone a compliment.
Encourage museum staff to walk through the building without looking at their phones. Ask them to greet visitors in passing. Suggest that they smile in welcome as they see visitors come in the door. Or, what about having each tour guide start the tour by suggesting everyone in the group turn and say hello to one other person in the group. It would only add 30 seconds to the tour time and it might just turn around someone's day.
Social connecting = hospitality = improved visitor experience
Anything a museum, historic house, or heritage site does to address social connection fits with improving the visitor experience. Can your museum find ways to incorporate social connection with the result being that all of your visitors have a better experience? And, you might just be helping build mental wellness within your community?