UCL News


Spotlight on Professor Helen Chatterjee

17 August 2016

This week, the spotlight is on Professor Helen Chatterjee, Professor of Biology, UCL Biosciences and Head of Research and Teaching, UCL Public and Cultural Engagement.

Helen Chatterjee

What is your role and what does it involve?

I have a joint position as Professor of Biology (aka Professor of Gibbonology) in UCL Genetics, Evolution and Environment in the Division of Biosciences (UCL Faculty of Life Sciences), where I spend most of my time, and Head of Research and Teaching in UCL Public and Cultural Engagement, which includes UCL's museums, collections, theatre, studio and public engagement unit. 

My role involves the full spectrum of research, teaching, public engagement and enabling activities.

I am very lucky that UCL allows me to pursue two very diverse portfolios, one focused on biodiversity and the environment, the other focused on culture and health. 

On the biodiversity side of things my research investigates primate evolution, biogeography and conservation; these days this work looks at the role of environmental change, particularly climate change, on species diversity and success. 

I have worked on gibbons, small apes from South-east Asia, for more than 20 years and I sit on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature's Section on Small Apes

The world's rarest primate is a gibbon, but the group has never received the kind of flagship attention that gorillas, tigers or elephants have achieved, so raising awareness is a big part of being a gibbonologist.

My museological research investigates the value of cultural and creative encounters to health, wellbeing and education. This work involves working in partnership with museums and arts organisations, health and social care providers and the third sector; I really couldn't do any of this research without their support and collaboration (and their audiences).

How long have you been at UCL and what was your previous role?

This September is my 20th anniversary at UCL. I came here to do a PhD on gibbons in 1996 and accidentally became the curator of the Grant Museum of Zoology (I was only supposed to be doing some postgraduate tutoring using the collections). 

I fell in love with the Grant Museum and UCL, and stayed at the museum for 10 years, combining my role as curator with a lectureship position in the department formerly known as Biology (now called GEE).

What working achievement or initiative are you most proud of?

About 10 years ago I was chatting with the Arts Curator at UCH, Guy Noble, and we were mulling over how we might use UCL's wonderful museum collections in the hospital. 

Coincidentally, I received a request to come up with a Student Selected Component-research project for medical students, so we thought this would be a great opportunity to investigate the value of museum encounters for hospital patients, while providing medical students with the opportunity to develop patient-communication skills.

The project proved to be really fascinating and led me to submit a grant to the Arts and Humanities Research Council (AHRC) to run a series of research workshops. 

This was the start of my work, which has now burgeoned into a huge research area and resulted in me being awarded an MBE last year. Over the subsequent 10 years or so, the AHRC has been very generous and supported various research projects. 

I am really grateful to them as they took a punt on supporting this work which is highly interdisciplinary, combining methods from psychology, biomedical sciences, anthropology and museology, so it doesn't fit neatly into one research council.

Tell us about a project you are working on now which is top of you to-do list?

I have several projects on the go at the minute. Museums on Prescription, which is funded by the AHRC, is investigating the impact of museum encounters in social prescribing. 

Social prescribing links people from primary care to sources of community supportand our research is looking at the value of museum encounters for socially isolated older adults. 

We are working with referrers from Adult Social Care, NHS Trusts and AgeUK in Camden and Kent; they identify lonely older people at risk of social isolation and refer them to a 10-week activity programme in museums such as the British Museum, British Postal Museum, Canterbury, Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells museums and our own ones here at UCL. 

We collect quantitative quality of life, loneliness and social isolation data before, during and after the programme and various types of qualitative feedback. 

The project is already generating interesting results about the benefits of social interaction in a cognitively stimulating environment and the museums have developed new relationships with health and social care services thanks to the research.

In another project called Not So Grim up North, which is funded by Arts Council England, we are working with museums in Manchester and Tyne and Wear where we are looking at the impact of museum activities in specific areas such as mental health, stroke rehabilitation and addition recovery.

These studies have revealed some fascinating insights into how museum activities, such as object handling, craft and creative activities inspired by museums, can lead to cognitive and physical stimulation, improve psychological wellbeing and enhance patient-carer communication.

A couple of years ago at a conference, I was chatting with some museum colleagues from National Museums Liverpool and Thackray Medical Museum, and we came up with the idea of setting up an alliance to support museums in their work around health and wellbeing. 

When I first started my research, there was very little activity in museums to support the health and wellbeing of their audiences, but recently this has become a big priority for museums as funders have asked them to justify their societal value.

To this end, I applied to Arts Council England and was awarded funding to establish the National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing.

We have just heard that we have been awarded another two years funding from Arts Council to draw on the combined expertise of allied organisations such as Public Health England, the Wellcome Trust and the Group for Education in Museums to deliver knowledge sharing opportunities, which will integrate research into practice, and develop online virtual training resources for building resilience across the museum and creative sectors. 

We have also just published our first report, Museums for Health and Wellbeing, so setting up new partnerships, promoting our report and recruiting new staff posts for the Alliance are at the top of my to-do list.

What is your favourite album, film and novel?

Tricky… there are so many… I guess if we go with number of engagements:

Album: The Stone Roses by The Stone Roses

Film: Alfred Hitchcock's Vertigo

Novel: Animal Farm by George Orwell

What is your favourite joke (pre-watershed)?

An oldie but a goodie among primatologists:

Q: Why do apes tell such bad stories?

A: Because they have no tales.

Who would be your dream dinner guests?

An informal gathering with Louise Bourgeois, Frida Kahlo, Siouxsie Sioux, Robert Smith, Frankie Knuckles, David Lynch, Diane Fossey, Jane Goodall, Alfred Russel Wallace, Charles Darwin, Robert E Grant (founder of the Grant Museum), David Attenborough and Chris Packham would be fun.

What advice would you give your younger self?

Don't panic.

What would it surprise people to know about you?

I figure skate. I wouldn't exactly refer to myself as A Figure Skater, but I have a lesson every week and have done for about 10 years. 

Each week, I work on a range of jumps, spins and other field or technical elements, and although I'm a bit rubbish at some moves, it's a great way to combine mental and physical exercise…

I really have to concentrate hard for the whole hour, which is quite challenging for me as I am usually thinking about a million different things at once and have a very short attention span!

What is your favourite place?

Another tricky one but I will have to go with Vietnam - it combines my favourite things: gibbons, rainforests and fantastic cultural heritage.