Museum stories: How the Barber Institute are helping the local community


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Today we hear from the Barber Institute of Fine Arts in Birmingham, who are using their funding from Art Fund to create an arts, health and wellbeing programme for local people.

You might have heard of an ‘artist in residence’ in a medical setting, such as a hospital. But what about a ‘nurse in residence’ at a museum or gallery?

As part of the ‘Barber Health’ project the Barber Institute are welcoming a nurse in residence to the museum, who’ll bring specialist knowledge and be able to use the collection to start new conversations around health and wellbeing.

And, in light of the pandemic and the pain that communities are facing in processing grief and loss, the Barber are also looking at how they can use the museum collection to help people have conversations about these difficult subjects. Below, Jen Ridding, the museum’s head of public engagement, tells us more about this important project, which is already underway.

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‘The idea for Barber Health is something that was in our minds before Covid. We started working with the College of Medical and Dental Sciences [at Birmingham University], delivering sessions for training nurses in the gallery, particularly using the collection to facilitate learning about bereavement. It’s recognised that it’s a really difficult topic to teach, particularly in a lecture theatre with PowerPoint. We really wanted to develop that work – and then we went into Covid. It became apparent that there was an opportunity. Could we address some of the issues of Covid and use the connections we’ve made at the medical school to do something different?

There are four strands to the project. Our 'community conversations' will use that same practical workshop model as in the gallery, but we’ll take them out physically, if we can, to pop-up community locations. It’s been a very long time since our society talked about death so much. Because of Covid, so many of our rituals or support networks aren’t readily available. We can’t readily go to a place of worship or meet family for support. These conversations are continuing the work we were doing before, but framing it in a Covid context.

Our nurse-in-residence is Jane Nicol. We thought, we have artists-in-residence in healthcare settings; what if we put a healthcare professional in residence in a cultural setting? If we say that gallery collections are beneficial for wellbeing, then surely we need to be working with people who are expert in that field.

Jane will bring contacts and connections with the healthcare sector which would take me or my team years to build up. And what I love about Jane is that she can see the collection through a new lens, having been a registered nurse and a palliative care specialist. It can be quite revelatory. The collection can be activated to strike up conversations with whole new groups of people. I find it really exciting.’

JMW Turner, The Sun Rising Through Vapour, c1809, part of the Barber collection

‘We also have a care home strand. Recently two nursing students completed a placement at the Barber, researching our dementia engagement. They also looked at the collections and put forward proposals of how we could share them with people living with dementia and their carers. We were about to roll that out when Covid hit.

We’ve got a whole spectrum of communities on our doorstep and a huge number of care homes. It was a sort of lightbulb moment. Those communities have been affected by Covid in a really traumatic way. Could we start sharing the collection? What can we offer to bring a little bit of brightness into that community?

At the moment, we’re looking at whether we can stream sessions into care homes or send out tactile resources and materials in a Covid-safe way.’

Barber gallery

‘The final strand is to research social prescribing [the referral of patients to non-clinical services, such as arts activities, community groups, befriending, etc.], and hopefully launch a pilot by the end of the year, working directly with GP practices and link workers in our community.

As a part of Barber Health, we’re going to run two pharmacy student placements, recognising that pharmacists are very much on the front face of health care. People come to them for advice or support. If someone ends up revealing that they’re lonely or they’ve suffered a bereavement, can those pharmacists signpost them to social prescribing more? By working with medical students, I really feel we can start to change their perception of what whole-person care looks like.’

Barber gallery

‘We’re in a fantastic position to have received the Art Fund grant. It’s just brilliant, one of the highlights of a very, very difficult year. Once we have the Barber Health activity up and running, I’ll be thinking of the next year and what funding is available to support this. Because we all know that the impact of Covid will be here for years. We’ve created a full-time co-ordinator [role], thanks to Art Fund, and it really needs that dedicated resource to do this emotionally challenging work.

My real challenge is to think about how we can sustain [this], even if just for another year, because the challenges of Covid are not going away any time soon. I really feel that the Barber, our collection and resources, can be activated to address some of those issues.’

Explore the Barber Institute of Fine Arts.

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