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Improving lives

'And Breathe...', The Mindful Museum at Manchester Art Gallery

The Mindful Museum is a partnership project between Greater Manchester Mental Health Trust (GMMH) and Manchester Art Gallery (MAG) who have been working together since 2013 to integrate mindfulness practice into the gallery’s public program. Earlier this year MAG opened its first mindful exhibition called, “And Breathe…”

The psychologist Rick Hanson talks about how taking time to connect with the pleasant experience in our lives can build resilience to stress. Art galleries and museums are the perfect places to do this. Hanson puts forward the idea of an inbuilt negativity bias, which means we need to work harder to take in and absorb any pleasant sensation for it to be saved in our long-term memory, whereas unpleasant or painful experiences are saved immediately.

To challenge this negativity bias, the “And Breathe…” exhibition is asking visitors to allow themselves to experience connecting to a piece of artwork and to stay a little longer than usual, as part of 30-minute “Take Notice” sessions. These sessions are part of MAG’s Mindfulness Museum programme, which has been running for four years, exploring how mindfulness can be employed in the appreciation of art and helping people to engage more fully with the collections on display.

Cathy Fortune, GMMH’s Arts and Culture Partnerships Coordinator, was invited with other representatives from the service, Paul Farmer, CEO of Mind and Alex Coulther, Director of Arts and Health South West, to talk about the impact of arts and culture on mental health at the Museums and Heritage Show 2018 on 16 May.

Cathy said the following of the sessions during the presentation:

“In a “Take Notice” session, we spend half of the time in a mindful looking practice and half of it discussing what people noticed. The discussion or enquiry is important as we can relate what people noticed to some basic principles of mindfulness and talk how they can take these skills into the rest of their lives:

What we focus our attention on becomes more vivid
People are often very excited about how much they see in a painting by paying attention in this way and how much it increases their interest and enjoyment.

It’s possible to choose where we focus our attention
When we first started the Take Notice sessions, participants sometimes complained that the ambient noise in the gallery space was too distracting. So, we began each session with a short noticing sound practice, inviting people to experience it as a sensory experience and notice any reactions in themselves to different sounds.

We would then invite them to let the sounds become background noise as the painting became the centre of their attention and focus. And people reported afterwards that although the sounds were there they ceased to be a problem.

As soon as we focus our attention on one thing it will wander off to another
People often have the misconception that mindful mediation involves holding your attention on a single point of focus like a laser beam. It’s really about returning our attention every time it drifts off, as each time we do this we strengthen our capacity to focus.

Everybody has a constantly chattering mind
Sharing experiences about the constant commentary, judgements, stories, plans, etc. that are flowing through our minds can make it easier to see these just as thoughts, rather than facts.

Slowing down, focusing on positive experience, connecting to other people and noticing our surroundings, are the core concepts at the heart of the Mindful Museum programme and we feel that helping people connect to this sense of comfort and safety that is often lacking in the rush of modern life is valuable work that we want to continue and develop into the future. But what is most important to us are the benefits experienced by some of the people who use our services:

“What I found beneficial was the looking at things a bit differently, not just in art pieces, but at the world and how I view it.”

Mindfulness and art can’t take away the difficulties from our lives, but they can help us to see and strengthen the resources we have that may make them more manageable.”

“And Breathe…” continues at Manchester Art Gallery until 15 March 2019, find out more on the Manchester Art Gallery website here.

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