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Course Highlight: Museums, Health, and Wellbeing Seminar

For this Winter Quarter 2023 Course Highlight, we were excited to speak with students participating in Jessica Luke‘s new seminar: Museums, Health, and Wellbeing. This seminar explores the role that museums can play in public health, in particular in fostering positive social and emotional well-being. This course is structured as a 5-part seminar, addressing wellbeing theory, practice, research, measures, and contexts. We sat down mid-way through the quarter with Cristal Seda Santiago, Hannah Sutton, and Sarah Smith to discuss their experiences in the class so far. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. Thank you Cristal, Hannah, and Sarah for sharing!


Can you tell us a little bit about this course, in terms of both the subject matter and format?

Hannah Sutton: Sure! This class is a seminar, and we’re all sitting in a circle facing each other. It’s been nice sort of decentralizing authority in that way. It’s really all about the readings and research articles and discussing them and coming up with questions to ask each other. Every class is focused on a different aspect of wellbeing research. So we’ve talked about theory, practice, measures of wellbeing, and then wellbeing across contexts.

Cristal Seda Santiago: Yes, we do a lot of readings and a lot of group discussions, and I thought it was going to be more of a lecture type of class. I knew this was a seminar, but I thought it was going to be more like seminars that offer a breakdown of a certain theory, where it came from, and how it’s applied. In this class, Jessica presents research for us to read weekly, and we are in a setting that promotes discussion and giving our personal insights and what we gathered from the readings. We’ve also done some really interactive, hands-on activities with classmates.

Sarah Smith: I’ll just add, too, that it’s communal learning. I think that’s what we’re trying to get at. Through these readings, through the questions that we pose to one another, and through the structure of the course itself, it’s learning is a social activity.


Can you tell us a bit about the readings and theory you’ve been discussing?

Sarah Smith: One of the early readings we did was an article on Carol Ryff’s 6-dimensional model of wellbeing. I really enjoyed that we started by framing the class around asking “what is wellbeing?” Because everyone’s definition can differ in pretty drastic ways. So, I really appreciated that grounding. Not that we’ve decided exactly how we want to define wellbeing, but I found that to be really helpful exercise, and it’s been something that I’ve continued to go back to throughout the class. “How does this relate to the different aspects of wellbeing we discussed in the first class?”

Cristal Seda Santiago: Yeah, in all of our classes we still mention those elements of wellbeing we started with, and how they apply in different contexts. Early on we were talking about how, for example, one type of wellbeing does apply to me at this point in my life, but not always at other points. There’s a lot of nuance and gray area involved. Like Sarah said, our discussions haven’t been about a set definition, but having those early definitions or criteria of wellbeing gives you a framework to go back to and see how it’s reflected in many of the examples of museum programs that a lot of the research we’re reading about focuses on.

Hannah Sutton: Yeah, and some of what I thought was pretty helpful about it, too, was it helped us define wellbeing broadly, because in subsequent articles we’ve read, they’ve been looking at, for example, life expectancy, and then others have been looking at stress levels, which are pretty different things but are also both facets of wellbeing. So, starting the class with a larger discussion of how to define wellbeing was a good starting point for understanding why the articles we’re reading look at so many different things.


How has this course connected to other coursework or projects (like thesis or internships) you’re working on, or to your general professional interests?

Cristal Seda Santiago: Personally, I’ve been able to apply some of what I’m learning in the class to my thesis project, because my final product will be delivered for people (it’s an educational guide to a museum for Spanish-speaking visitors). Sarah’s project is more directly related to wellbeing, but in my case it just shows up in a lot of the little things in each step of the process in my project. For example, my project had a front-end evaluation piece which involved surveying people, and in asking people to participate in this survey, I was really conscious about people’s feelings, and how to present my project in a way that’s more like this is me trying to build something with you rather than take from you.

And I’ve carried that mindset all the way through into my final deliverable, just keeping in my mind that this is for real people with real needs. At the end of the day, I’m trying to make something to help people just to have a better experience in the museum, because, for me, wellbeing in museums basically boils down to just having a good experience that lowers your stress and satisfies what you were looking for when you walked into the museum.

Sarah Smith: So, speaking as to how this class relates to my thesis: my thesis has to do with bringing mindfulness practices into children’s museums through programming, and that’s initially why I was interested in this course. I was like oh, it’s totally alignment with my thesis! And certainly the course has reinforced a lot of the independent literature review research that I have done. I also have taken some of the readings from this class and thrown them into my thesis. So that was useful.

It’s interesting to look at wellbeing in a broader sense. In my thesis work, I’m specifically addressing health and wellbeing and learning through mindfulness, because it can benefit all of those things. But there are aspects of wellbeing that I’m not at all addressing that are addressed in the class, like longevity, or mortality. So it’s definitely interesting to see it from different viewpoints

As far how it relates to other classes, I think it’s just a really good reminder that museums do have wellbeing benefits for people who visit them. And I don’t think that’s something that we really address deeply in other settings. I think, for example, we talk about learning a lot, or visitor motivations, but you don’t necessarily talk about wellbeing. And so it’s been interesting to kind of reframe things a little bit in that regard.

Hannah Sutton: Yeah, as a first-year, I can’t really speak to my thesis project yet. But, in terms of professional interests, one thing I’m super interested in is understanding how the spatial and sensory qualities of a museum impact the visitor experience. This course has made me think more about wellbeing as a facet of the visitor experience, and not just “did I like this,” but also “how does this positively impact my well-being?” So, just building wellbeing in as a facet of how we think about the visitor experience has been interesting to me.


What questions has this course generated for you? What are you looking forward to exploring more moving forward?

Hannah Sutton: Yeah, there’s one thing that has just been at the edge of my brain every time we go into class. If we are seeing museums as part of our public health and wellbeing ecosystem, then I think it can’t just be understood as a passive benefit. We can’t just be like “oh, I go to the museum, and I feel happy.” Instead, we have to be really intentional, active, and specific about how our exhibitions or programming are impacting people’s wellbeing. And thinking about museums as institutions that impact people’s wellbeing just underscores the importance of addressing inequities throughout them and maybe also gives a frame through which to work on addressing those inequities.

Sarah Smith: I 100% agree with everything Hannah just said! I will add to it that one thing that’s been kind of bouncing around in my brain relates to a conversation we had about research on what different wellbeing-related programs are out there and what different visitor groups are impacted through those programs. We ended up talking about the labor that goes into providing these kinds of programs and experiences. Like, we’re acknowledging that museums are places that provide wellbeing benefits, and we’re acknowledging that you need to be intentional in order to best enhance those benefits. That means more work for museum staff now, who are already overburdened, already underpaid. Are we expecting them to be therapists, too? Is that okay? And for me particularly, as someone who is working on a thesis where I’m presenting something to educators like, “add this extra thing,” that really hit really hard! And so that’s something I’m continually trying to grapple with: how can I best frame this so that it’s not extra work, but it’s… something else?

Cristal Seda Santiago: Yeah, I also was thinking about what Sarah mentioned about extra labor. But another thing that keeps running through my mind is that a lot of the research we’re reading is from Europe, which is in so many ways different than the U.S. I don’t think United States politics or health care system support wellbeing infrastructure at the same level as a lot European countries. So in one way, it’s a nice thought to have, that we, as a field, can help address this issue and promote our visitors’ wellbeing. But, on the other hand, do we really have the proper tools, the proper personnel, and the proper funding to pay these personnel to even provide that in the first place?

So, while some of this research could be helpful at a more systemic level in some countries or contexts, for me personally, I think the way I’m finding this research useful is as a general framework for my own approach to my work, just applying it ourselves in the projects we design and the things we create as working professionals. In this era and political climate in the U.S., we almost just have to put it upon ourselves rather than rely on wellbeing becoming a more systemically supported thing in the museum field. And in that way, hopefully we could maybe integrate wellbeing as a more central focus in the museum field. But my biggest question every time I leave class is, realistically speaking, is there space for us to have these conversations in museums? How much room is there for us as emerging museum professionals to exert some influence in this way?