Turning art museums into therapeutic environments to help visitors express and discover themselves through art
Art & Design Museum
5 months (2020)
Areas of responsibility
Desk research & interviews, System analysis, Design strategy, UI design, Workshop facilitation, Prototyping, Service storytelling
It is my graduate project at the Royal College of Art which was self-directed. I got the chance to create my own project brief that was in line with my personal interest. I always wanted to transform the typical visiting experiences of museums to help promote the value and importance of art in our daily lives. Starting this project by partnering with the V&A Museum, I had meetings with the digital team to clarify the outcomes and goals that we wanted to achieve. However, the project was not able to continue due to the recent pandemic so I decided to consider the V&A Museum as a case study and designed a service that could fit all art museums.
Heart-to-Heart is a self-paced wellness program which transforms art museums into therapeutic environments. It aims to help visitors express and discover themselves through art, improve mental wellbeing, learn how to appreciate art and build an emotional connection with the museum objects. The first program helps young couples who would like to strengthen their relationship through art as communication in three steps, discovering their relationship’s strengths, having a relaxing conversation about the relationship and creating a common vision of the future.
Apart from understanding the specific design opportunities of experiences at the V&A Museum, I did research on topics like engagement, familiarity and inclusivity of museums in general to explore more about the industry. I also interviewed some museum experts and around 30 frequent and infrequent visitors to examine the current visitor behaviours, their concerns and motivations to visit an art museum. Different online communication tools and collaborative platforms were used to connect and work with interviewees during the pandemic. After I decided to focus on the concept of art as therapy in museums, I did the second round of research with art therapists and other stakeholders to know the feasibility, desirability and viability of the idea.
1. The V&A museum’s main strategic objectives are strengthening storytelling with digital technology and inspiring young people’s self-expression.
2. People are now seeking more exciting and surprising experiences. Research has shown that young people prefer other types of experiences than visiting the museum during their free time.
3. There is a lack of personal connection between visitors and museum objects. Most of the infrequent visitors of the V&A museum consider themselves as an outsider of art. They do not know how to appreciate art and they do not feel the connection with art museums.
How might we leverage the rich art collections at the V&A Museum to stimulate visitors' emotional engagement and increase inclusivity to outsiders of art?
Heart-to-Heart is a self-paced wellness program which transforms art museums into therapeutic environments. It aims to help visitors express and discover themselves through art, improve mental wellbeing, learn how to appreciate art and build an emotional connection with the museum objects.
Art as Therapy
Art therapy is powerful in healing. It uses art media as its primary mode of communication. It is for self-expression and self-discovery for people of all ages and abilities.
Why is applying art as therapy in museums a smart idea?
First, museum objects can depict human experiences and symbolize the current or past experiences of visitors that people can see and relate themselves easily. Second, as a cultural space, it is a safe environment to let people depart from everyday activities and express emotions. It also stimulates creativity for art-making, which can change visitors from passive viewers to self-expressive artists.
Focusing on young couples
As the first focus group of the therapeutic program at the V&A Museum, I looked at people who are emotionally affected by the recent lock-down. A lot of research proved that young couples living together under lockdown are experiencing ‘growing unease’ in their relationship. Their problems are mainly magnifying existing issues which aroused conflicts and having arguments on adapting to partner’s living habits. They need open and deep communication that enables them to feel comfortable to express themselves. They also need to seek common values, have positive interactions, maintain emotional attachment and build trust.
After a briefing session with art therapists, participants start the self-paced therapeutic experience by following the instructions on the audio guide and art journal to strengthen their relationship with 3 sessions, which are about the past, present and future of their relationship respectively.
Session 1 aims to discover the relationship’s strengths of participants by recalling some of their romantic moments in the past. They are guided to visit some museum objects and listen to their stories and hidden facts. After that, participants will answer some questions in the art journal based on their personal experiences in the relationship. They will then have a conversation about the elements that can strengthen their connection.
Session 2 is about expressing and understanding participants' current feelings towards the relationship. They are suggested to spend around an hour to wander around the museum, to find the exhibits that they can emotionally relate to, and answer some questions by sketching their selection of exhibits to express and communicate their feelings and thoughts to their partner. They can seek guidance and advice from art therapists who are on duty whenever they need help.
Session 3 helps participants to create a common vision of the future with their partner. They are suggested to spend around an hour, to create artworks to illustrate their imagination of the desirable future of the relationship. They can make either a postcard or collage with their partner through a conversation. After that, they will be asked to chat with an art therapist for a reflection. The therapist will collect feedback, give them advice and evaluate if they need to visit a professional therapist.
Tailoring more programs
The museum can tailor other therapeutic programs to reach more audiences, for example, strengthening bonds between family members, coping with stress with colleagues or classmates, self-discovery of emotions for individuals and exploring body images with the fashion collection.
Phrase II of the service
Self-guided online therapeutic sessions will be provided with the V&A Online Collection and videos. For people who have attended the program before, it will be an extension of the healing experience building on the knowledge they learnt at the museum. They can develop a habit of communicating through art.
To Art Therapists
I organized two prototyping workshops to test my proposition. I got a lot of positive feedback from art therapists and couples who stayed together during the pandemic. A few art therapists told me they are happy to offer help or lead the program if any museum is interested in launching the project. They think that the service is creative and able to arouse a relaxing conversation between participants. They also encouraged me to think about providing online therapeutic sessions with museum collections. Couples that I got in touch with liked the idea of using art-making as a media to express themselves and agreed that the experience would be a perfect date for them to just chill out and chat with their partner.
Remote working with online tools
Designers are adapting to new work practice due to the recent pandemic. Before the closure of the V&A Museum, I thought the most practical way to gain insights and prototype my idea would be communicating with visitors face-to-face at the museum. However, during the design process, I discovered that it was also convenient and viable to collect valuable feedback with detailed storyboards and digital prototypes through online communication tools and platforms, such as Zoom, Skype, Google form and Miro.