In this museum, you can recognize yourself. For us as human beings this is fundamental to health and wellbeing.
~ Jolien Posthumus
In the twenty years since it first opened its doors, the mandate of Museum of the Mind has been transformed, reshaped by a new civic ethic for public institutions and a push to destigmatize mental health among the nations of the Global North. Museums, once staid institutions for dispensing elite knowledge to a passive public, have been challenged to reinvent themselves by connecting with important societal issues of the moment and delivering accessible, inclusive, and interactive content. High profile actors, athletes, even royalty, who once hid mental distress, now openly employ the parlance of mental health to frame their public narratives. Mental health is regarded as epidemic and global in scope.
Coming into the museum on Haarlem’s Schotersingel canal as a new director in 2008, Hans Looijen saw the opportunity that this configuration offered the institution. But a robust public engagement program was needed to broaden the facility’s visitor base beyond its established clientele of educated White women from the middle classes, aged 50 or older. Looijen’s first initiative invited members of the public into the museum to create the home they would like to have. Huge installations filled the space. Next, the “de Bovenkamer” (Upper Room) was constructed for youth ages 12 to 18. Canvassed about visitor expectations, young people reported that they saw the museum as a place for and about them. For curator Floris Mulder this sense of engagement prompted an important professional realization: his museum could provide social and health supports.
The original museum had been exclusively funded by a handful of psychiatric institutions. Now, with new programming, connections were made to housing and disability groups whose perspective on health encompassed advocacy, intersectionality, and the social determinants of health. This in turn broadened the museum’s scope for programming and outreach. Experts with experience of mental health were able to use volunteer work at the museum as a stepping stone to a culinary diploma and waged work. Mental health awareness and anti-stigma programs offered opportunities for visiting schools as mental health ambassadors. The 2014 adoption of a new name – Museum of the Mind – was a signal that this was a place where all visitors would find, not just the past, but their present selves.
A museum environment is nothing more than informal learning. We don’t always perceive it as learning, which is good.
~ Hans Looijen
In the new Museum of the Mind the neurotypical visitor is included in the exhibit, alongside rather than apart from people with mental differences. Instead of an alienating encounter with “the Other,” the visitor is encouraged to challenge their preconceived notions about the mind and mental health starting with themself. This is an educational process. Interactive quizzes on the audio guide not only ask the listener to question their concept of “the mind,” but also encourage introspection. The colourful contemporary art that fills the museum’s galleries invites us to engage emotionally and contemplatively, switching off our analytical left brain and accessing other ways of knowing. It is the museum’s hope that through these processes, the visitor finds it easier to become empathetic to themself and to others.
We witnessed these concepts unfolding in real time when we visited the museum. Immediately, we were surrounded by school children touring the exhibit. Eavesdropping on student-guide interactions in front of a display about psychiatric diagnoses, we heard a guide inquire if anyone had ever felt labelled. One child spoke, reluctantly revealing their ADHD diagnosis, and then others began to open up about their mental health concerns. Prompted by another display, the guide asked the children how they felt about homelessness. The judgemental tone of the ensuing discussion shifted after a few challenging questions forced the students to question their prejudices and move to a place of empathy.
These learning strategies map onto current ideas in museum pedagogy. Curators, guides, staff and volunteers in charge of visitor experience have become agents in critical and emotional thinking, no longer dispensing specific sets of information but rather encouraging the museum’s clientele in an intellectual, moral, and personal quest to make sense of a changing world. The visitor both co-creates meaning within the display space by contributing their personal point of view and life experiences and takes away a response that is uniquely their own. Standing in front of Ahmet Türkmen’s pink elephant, long-time museum guide Marianne de Bruin does not talk about the artist’s addiction and recovery but instead begins a conversation about how members of her group might deal compassionately with mental health difficulties in their peer group or family. Her goal is to promote ideas and discussion rather than determine concrete solutions.
We think that the feminist concept “ethic of care” might be an appropriate fit for the educational goals of the Museum of the Mind. Ethics of care theorists define care as a concrete activity that involves caring for and about others. Because care is so fundamental to life, theorists argue that an ethic of care is a foundational civic value and should be employed to inform political thought and steer governments and social institutions toward creating humane and effective policies and services. Self-care is implied, but at the root of the concept is a moral orientation toward individual and collective responsibility in the interests of social justice and human (and other) rights.
Now I believe that a museum ticket, or in a broader sense visiting a museum, can affect your mind in all sorts of ways, in a positive way.
~ Floris Mulder
It must have been a very heady day for the Museum of the Mind community when the facility were designated the 2022 European Museum of the Year. EMYA lauded the way in which this “human-centred” institution worked to foster, “curious aesthetically alert, reflective, critical citizens who can all contribute to creating a health-enhancing society.” The adjudicators praised the Museum of the Mind as an activist organization and a museum leader in mental health and neurodiversity programming. Describing the museum as a “school of life with a very open mind,” EMYA acknowledged that this work had been accomplished within a deeply stigmatized historical space.
This was extraordinary acknowledgment for the museum at Haarlem from their European colleagues. Yet as individuals with personal and professional investments in the mental health field, we were also interested in EMYA’s mention of the museum’s links to mental health organizations and in the way which staff we interviewed regarded the museum as a form of adjunct health care institution. In his interview Hans Looijen stressed that the museum, “had a place not only in the museum field but also in the mental health field.” Floris Mulder told us that advocacy for inclusion, a museum value, was now widely supported in the healthcare field and asserted that by offering space for telling personal stories, the museum played a positive role in mental health.
Jolien Posthumus, mental health coordinator at the museum, presented a more fulsome vision. With mental health being recognised as a global topic of concern, she looks forward to a time when all museums incorporate mental health into their programming and function as part of the healthcare system, free and accessible to all, and staff and volunteers able to access state-funding training in health-related competences. “Imagine,” she asked us, “how it would be if museums started work on a new exhibition by curating with trauma sensitive skills?”
One of the questions the museum brought to us was that they hoped that visitors are changed when they come here.
~ Lieke Ketelaars
The Madness Canada website envisions itself as a citizen’s resource, a publicly available basket of past-present-future art and commentary, offered alongside resources for learning and research. This utopian reading of the potential of public spaces for fostering health-giving communities can also be applied to the Museum of the Mind. But social change websites like Madness Canada can be less constrained than museums in staking out a moral ground and taking an activist position. Only one generation removed from a linear knowledge transmission model and anxious to avoid appearing biased, most museums instead offer visitors the opportunity to construct their own interpretations. But how to ensure that visitor analyses dig deep enough into exhibit content to hit some version of critical thinking?
British museum specialists Jocelyn Dodd and Richard Sandell considered the challenges of unsettling visitors’ narrow preconceptions of disability without rushing in to tell them what they should believe, think, and do. As the Museum of the Mind and Madness Canada have also learned, Dodd and Sandell found that the most effective exhibits presented a range of voices and stories of a range of people with disabilities. This sometimes untidy assemblage is what Canadian scholars and activists Jennifer Rinaldi and nancy davis halifax equate with the poetry of witness, “that thing through which we do not think for meaning but through which meaning arrives.” Drawn in by the drama of life, visitors evaluate often disparate insights into living with a disability that may include any combination of the following topics and many more: tragedy, politics, community, injustice, love, humour, ill health. Perhaps this poetic presentation style is a moral compass for our age, a kind of Instagram meets GPS where presentation counts, and the landscape is complicated and shifting.
Exhibit designer Lieke Ketelaars traced a trail of deepening engagement as she described the imagined pathway of a visitor through the museum. The visitor is asked questions, they hear stories, they see art, and the hope is that they begin to share their own concerns, to rethink an “us” and “them” paradigm, and to feel empathy for people who suffer from emotional pain. The Declaration of the Open Mind is the final installation in the exhibit. This luminous collaborative activity asks the visitor to sign a personal pledge supporting appreciation, inclusion, and openness in mental health, then hoist it upwards to join a shining cloud of affirmations offered by likeminded souls.
The theatre of the Declaration of the Open Mind is pure aesthetic advocacy, explicitly encouraging the visitor to become an engaged citizen and carry the museum’s message of taking and making care forward into their daily lives. Jolien Posthumus sees this as a question of institutional lineage for the next generation, “What learning from the past that we see here in this museum can we take with us to our future and our children’s future so the story of the museums can continue?” We leave you pondering this question.
Marianne de Bruin Interview, Haarlem, 21 November 2022.
Lieke Ketelaars Interview, Haarlem, 21 November 2022.
Hans Looijen Interview, Haarlem, 23 November 2022.
Floris Mulder interview, Haarlem, 21 November 2022.
Jolien Posthumus Interview, Haarlem, 17 November 2022.
European Museum of the Year Award, “The Winners, 2022/ les lauréats 2022” Brochure.
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