European Voices


Museums: Sites of history, culture – and wellbeing?

“Health and health equity is everybody’s responsibility." – Prof Helen Chatterjee

Portrait of Helen Chatterjee posing with skeletal models

24 June 2021

Professor Helen Chatterjee has loved museums her entire life. Growing up in Blackpool, she fondly remembers visiting museums in her local area and while travelling to London and abroad.  

“We would never go anywhere without visiting the local museum,” she says. 

So when Chatterjee came to UCL in 1996 for her PhD on gibbons, it seemed like fate that she would “accidentally inherit” UCL’s Grant Museum of Zoology

“You could say it was serendipitous,” she says of her experience helping her then-supervisor, paleobiologist and UCL Professor Adrian Lister, run the museum. This turned into a 10-year stint as the museum’s curator. 

More than 20 years later, Chatterjee has taken her passion for museums to new heights. The Professor of Biology works closely with museums and cultural institutions at UCL and beyond. She also has her hand in several projects helping museums across the UK and in Europe reach “non-traditional” audiences, and in 2015 was awarded an MBE for services to Higher Education and Culture. 

Her work has crossed borders to partnerships with universities and museum exhibits in Europe.  

One such project is her collaboration with researchers at Roma Tre University, funded through UCL’s Cities partnerships Programme Rome

‘Rome as a centre for inclusive memory and shared heritage: Developing new approaches for cultural communication and disadvantaged communities’ involves museums in London and Rome, as well as a heritage organization in a refugee camp in Jordan. Pairing museums with communities of refugees and asylum-seekers, the project explores themes of migration, dislocation, trauma and representation through object-based learning.  

The result is mutually beneficial, Chatterjee says, supporting the wellbeing of vulnerable and isolated communities while offering the museums a different perspective on their own collections. 

“The sorts of information and experiences that these communities can add to the understanding of museum objects is insurmountable,” she says. “A curator who’s not from that cultural background can never bring those experiences and, in some cases it’s led to new identifications or recognizing that there’s been a misidentification of a particular object.”  

Please touch the exhibit 

The changing nature of museums and attitudes toward these long-standing cultural institutions fascinates Chatterjee, whose research focuses largely on touch and object-based learning. When she was first starting out in the field, interaction with and touching of museum collections was taboo – a perception that persists in many museums today.  

She wants to change this attitude, not just by inviting the public to a more intimate experience with museum collections, but by encouraging museums to be actively invested in the health and wellbeing of their audiences.  

“We’re really keen to break that perception apart and say: ‘Who are these collections for, if not for those wider publics and particularly those people whose cultural histories are directly aligned with those objects and materials?’” she says. 

Working with University College Hospitals, Chatterjee began exploring how museums and health partners can work together through “creative health partnerships” to make museums more actively involved in community wellbeing. 

Chatterjee argues that museums and other cultural institutions can address some of the social and environmental challenges that contribute to complex health problems of individuals.  

“In order to really make people’s lives better, you have to understand the whole system, it has to be person-centred,” she says. “That’s where arts, culture, museums, libraries, and other community assets can play a key role. When people are isolated and disconnected from their communities, there is an automatic correlation with poor health.”  

This exploration led Chatterjee to co-found the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance, a consortium with thousands of members that, funded by Arts Council England, aims to increase collaboration between the cultural and health sectors. One example of this collaboration is social prescribing, an NHS-supported community-based approach to holistic health. 

She is also a founding trustee of the National Centre for Creative Health, which launched in April 2021 to advance policy-informing research on the intersection of healthcare systems and cultural practice.  

Creative health and the classroom 

Chatterjee’s work with partners in Europe has given her deeper insight into working with and supporting marginalised communities, something that has translated to her research and teaching at UCL. She has collaborated on several published books on object-based learning and touch in museums, and continued to work with external museum partners in Italy. 

In working across borders, she says UK museums can learn many lessons from their European counterparts about museum-going culture and the role of museums as community institutions.  

Now, she hopes to teach the next generation of museum researchers the value of creative health partnerships.  

At UCL, she recently launched the new MASc in Creative Health, which will have its first intake of students this September. The programme is the first of its kind both in topic and form, and will require students to work directly with community partners for their dissertations. 

Changing roles of museums  

The many exciting developments in the field of museum and cultural studies are happening in the context of a changing perception of the role of museums, particularly those at universities. 

Chatterjee says that difficult conversations about the colonial history of museum collections can be supported by the type of community engagement she is calling for. 

“People seem freer in universities to express their thoughts about colonial history and explore the past of why we have those collections,” she says.  

“Community engagement work is a really, really important process in terms of understanding the purpose and the value of museums. The more you can open up collections, the more you can get people from across the community working with those collections.”  

This has never been more clear than during the Covid-19 pandemic. Throughout the past year, Chatterjee has been conducting a large-scale research project to map how museums have been engaging with and providing aid to their audiences, even while their doors were closed to visitors. 

This research found that museums have played a role similar to some frontline workers, through doorstop visits and phone calls, partnerships with foodbanks, and other community initiatives. Chatterjee hopes these findings will lead to a “cultural recovery,” and a long-lasting shift in how the role of museums is viewed in communities.  

“Health and health equity is everybody’s responsibility,” she says.