Art Therapy at the Museum

In this guest post we hear from an Art Therapist Trainee, Chloe Sykes, who has been undertaking a placement at the Museum for the last six months. In her farewell blog post Chloe reflects on her practice and how she had to adapt it as the country went into lockdown back in March.

As a trainee Art psychotherapist, I was very fortunate to be offered my final placement at Manchester Museum. As it has come to an end, I have been asked to write a blog post reflecting on my time at the museum. But first, I will briefly explain what an Art therapist does.

Art therapy (or Art psychotherapy – both are protected and interchangeable titles) is a mental health intervention and has the scope to be utilised in many different ways. Some people engage in Art therapy with no previous art making experience but want to explore and connect to their thoughts and feelings in a creative way.

Using art materials during the therapy session can allow someone to find meaningful ways to explore any difficulties and/or develop new self care and resilience tools. It is my role to be alongside them during this journey, ensuring the person feels safe, seen and understood.

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Image 1: Reflective image exploring the role of the art therapist in create a safe space for a client.

Image 1 explores how it is the Art therapist’s role to ensure the therapy space feels safe, protected and secure (shown by the blue outer circle). This allows a client to feel like they are somewhere that they can express their thoughts and feelings freely (like the centre of image 1, with the free-flowing colours and textures, feelings and thoughts, remaining held by the blue circle).

During my experiences prior to and throughout my training, I have developed a keen passion for working with different communities. I believe that a person’s mental health and wellbeing, can be influenced by how we engage socially and individually. Unfortunately, mental health is sometimes hard to navigate and can often be daunting to experience alone. Therefore, it is exciting to see and be part of a cultural establishment that is actively making space for mental health and wellbeing. I truly do believe there is a place for health and wellbeing to be offered alongside the learning that is already available for communities; these cultural organisations have a great opportunity to bring people together through exploring the arts and our history. It is through this sense of coming together and sharing experiences, when paired up with creativity, that culture can have a powerful positive effect on a person’s wellbeing.

The Museum is already known for doing amazing work, engaging in various ways, with many local communities and organisations. This is something that clearly aligns well with my own passions. So, at the very start of the placement, time was spent considering where art therapy could lay within the museum and their already existing outreach partnerships. It seemed natural to introduce an art therapy service that would be offered to the organisation as well as their participants.

The planned art therapy sessions were to be held within the museum; regular sessions making artwork and exploring museum objects, in a way that would relate to how a client was potentially thinking and feeling. However, as the ripple effects of Covid 19 took hold, the shape of the placement at the Museum had to adapt to the ‘new normal’. As people and organisations took the necessary time to adapt to the new unknown it seemed appropriate to adjust where art therapy could lie during these times at the museum. A new direction was taken to offer virtual art therapy sessions to the museum staff and volunteers during the lockdown.

Each week I have been facilitating individual art therapy sessions for staff and volunteers through video conferencing. In spite of meetings being held virtually, they have still been very beneficial in many ways. A simple example of this has been how simply having a weekly time scheduled for meetings has given a much-needed sense of routine during a time when everything else seems so unknown. Also, knowing that there is a protected hour each week to reflect on any difficulties can be very powerful for some, it can feel like a beneficial space to breathe and pause.

As a trainee art therapist, facilitating something as personal and intimate as therapy over video calling needed to be carefully thought about. Because video calling can sometimes feel distant and strange, it was important to make some adaptations in light of this shift onto online delivery. Under normal circumstances, sharing the same space in therapy allows for a sense of safety and trust.

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Image 2: Reflective image of connecting in a therapeutic space virtually.

Image 2 (above) explores the ideas of sharing a space and time whilst being in a different place. Moving online, it was important to still have ways to feel like we were sharing the same safe space, despite being at separate locations, finding a way to feel connected. I introduced the use of lighting a candle at the beginning of each session (seen in the centre of the drawing). This allowed for us both to know that we had entered into the same shared space (connecting our separate spaces together through the candles). Blowing out the candles also brought the session to a close in unity; it also was a reminder of returning back to our own homes and metaphorically stepping out of the shared space.

Grounding exercises were useful for some, as it helped to bring the mind back into the virtual therapy space and similarly, back into their homes at the end of the session. Much like a commute, where we have some space to allow our minds to return to where we were before.

Once we had virtually entered into the shared space, art making, through various materials were used as a way to explore any thoughts or feelings for the clients. Sometimes, even online museum collections or galleries were used, with reflective chats about what those images meant for the person. The images (made or found) were reflected on, discussing what feelings, thoughts or sometimes memories were brought forward, or sometimes an imaginative narrative would be given to the piece(s).

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Image 3: Reflective drawing on a client’s therapeutic journey

The creativity and presence of a therapist allows for expression of sometimes, powerful emotions, to be discovered, seen, felt and shared. This can be a very healing process which is what the image 3 above explores. Clients often come to therapy feeling overwhelmed or stuck, seen in the left-hand side of the drawing.  During the course of therapy, these overwhelming feelings and areas where they feel stuck can be explored and begin to be understood, so that the client no longer feels overwhelmed or stuck. Instead, hopefully they will be able to recognise their feelings/thoughts/behaviours and understand what they mean (the right hand side of the drawing).

Another way that art making can help with growth is through the use of experimenting with art materials in a space that feels secure. Playing with art making, making mistakes and finding new ways to use the materials can allow self-esteem to foster. As materials are like symbolic tools to learn how to use what we already have, uniquely for each person whilst being thought of and supported by the therapist.

Over the past few months it has been a privilege to see how creativity has been used to gain a sense of understanding and bring people together despite being in lockdown. The art therapy for the museum staff and volunteers allowed for any mental health and well-being struggles to be taken on a journey of discovery and growth.

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