With the growing discussions around the topic of dementia, researchers are studying innovative ways to provide stimulation to the elderly and people living with dementia. One such way is through Art programs such as workshops organised for caregivers, and specialised visits to museums.

Stock photo of a museum tour

“The arts bear intimate relationships to culture and social change (and) can be associated with spiritual, religious, and often-neglected aspects of medical approaches to health”  – Whitehouse et al. 2017, p 3

The power of art in invigorating deep, reflective thought, triggering recollections, and aiding in the overall reduction of stress and isolative feelings is well documented. For people with dementia, especially in the early stages, engaging in arts-related activities can help them to “focus on their residual abilities and offset a sense of loss (Genoe & Dupuis, 2014) […] and have other cognitive, emotional, and wellbeing benefits” (Young, Camic, & Tischler, 2015; Zeilig, Killick, & Fox, 2014).

For example, ARTEMIS (ART Encounters: Museum Intervention Study), an intervention program designed “for people with dementia and their care partners which involves a combination of museum visits and artistic activity” has shown significant improvements in participants’ self-rated quality of life (Schall et al. 2017). The study showed that scores for apathy, depressed mood and anxiety for people with dementia were much lower after the intervention program. Such programs are also beneficial for caregivers, with one study showing a measurable increase in caregiver’s well-being post handling and viewing of art. There are several such programs currently in operations such as the Meet Me at MoMa (New York, USA) which was a topic of conversation at the second Dementia Forum X in 2017, programs across museums in Minnesota (USA), and House of Memories (UK), which continue to positively impact the lives of people with dementia and their caregivers.

With this rationale in mind, we decided to explore one such program known as Möten Med Minnen (Meetings with Memories) at the Etnografiska Museet (The Ethnography Museum) in Stockholm. The program, funded by the Postcode Lottery of Sweden in collaboration with the Swedish Alzheimer Foundation, the National Museum, the Swedish Dementia Association and the Swedish Dementia Center, is specially designed to engage people with dementia in conversations about art, history, and personal memories. It also takes place at Medelhavsmuseet (Mediterranean Museum) and the Östasiatiska Museet (The Museum of East Asian Antiquities). As our guide, Karin Wastfelt said, educators who lead the program aim to “find hooks” in the memories of people with a dementia diagnosis. They hope that the topics explored during the tour can trigger recollections of memories which may have been lost over the years.

A visit to the Etnografiska Museet

We arrived at the Etnografiska Museet to experience the tour “Möten Med Minnen”  on a Monday afternoon. During this time the museum is closed for everyone except for those who sign up for the tour. Upon our arrival, we were greeted by our guide for the day who proceeded to give us an introduction of the tour.

Storage at etnografiska museet

Image Credits: Arild Vågen

The theme for this season is the works of Carl Linnaeus’s disciples and their travels. We were told that the tour usually takes about an hour to complete. However, the timing is always set for 1.5 hours since the time can vary depending on the group, such as having to spend more time on a certain exhibit of particular interest or having to use the washroom.

Our journey started in a small corner of the museum and focused on the minute details in a particular viewing window. This was the usual style of conducting the tour to avoid overwhelming the participants with excess information. Focusing on the storytelling of smaller objects rather than the greater picture is more effective in acting as the “hooks” for triggering recollections in a person’s memory.

The tour usually consists of a group of 2 to a maximum of 15 people. The objective is to keep the group small in order to easier retain attention and focus. The tours are adjusted and modified to fit the personality of the group, for example, choosing to focus on a certain part of the exhibits if participants seem to be more interested in that.

Stock photo of a museum tour black and white

What does it take to run this program?

Having the chance to experience what the tour looks like was an enriching experience for us. It got us thinking about the kinds of skills and qualifications needed in order to facilitate the program. We talked to our guide in order to gain a better understanding of her background and experiences as an educator and guide at the museum. She told us that she had started working at Etnografiska right after completing a cultural studies course at Stockholms University in 1986. Thus Karin has been at Etnografiska for almost 33 years and has had a chance to fully immerse herself in the different programs of the museum.

She also mentioned that all the museum educators had the opportunity to enrol in a course arranged by Svenskt Demenscentrum (the Swedish Dementia Centrum) to learn how to run such a program. This was a way to reach out to new visitor groups, and also to gear the museum towards becoming more inclusive. Indeed, it is easy to see the ways in which the museum strives towards this mission. From guided tours with sign language interpretation, providing a hearing loop, loaning prams, to making all the features wheelchair accessible, Etnografiska has taken big steps towards achieving maximum inclusivity.

While the museum is prepared to accommodate all kinds of requests, it isn’t easy to predict the specific requirements of every individual or group. Our guide said that despite having spent the past three decades at the museum, she constantly learns new things from colleagues and visitors. She recalls with great excitement, an anecdote about an older gentleman living with dementia. Throughout the tour, he remained quiet and didn’t show any signs of interest. However, upon bringing up the topic of Carl Linnaeus through one of the exhibits, he became ecstatic and started recalling his experiences from the 1990s when Linnaeus’s work was a matter of great debate in Swedish media. She also recalls one instance where she was explaining the history and origin of tattoos in Europe and received a lot of unexpected participation from the audience.

Thus every tour at the museum is unique in its own way. Perhaps that is what motivates and inspires educators to continue discovering innovative ways to find “hooks” in the memories of people living with dementia.

Going Forward

Art should be accessible to everyone. The tour at Etnografiska left us positive and hopeful towards finding exciting ways to integrate people living with dementia in the community. Art and history can bring back memories and it is especially captivating when it is done through storytelling. They are also effective ways to integrate the different sections of society through appreciation and participation in a common culture and interest. We hope that more museums around the world initiate such programs and strive towards creating more inclusive societies.