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Curatorial Wellbeing

Wellbeing is much discussed in museum circles today, often in relation to the therapeutic value of art and visits to galleries for the public. However, the wellbeing of those charged with interpreting art and looking after collections is much less discussed, although this is beginning to change.

In early 2023 the Museums Association launched its Workforce Wellbeing campaign to highlight issues associated with the mental, emotional, physical and social aspects of working life in museums. Summarising its extensive research, the Museums Association notes that ‘for many people the experience of work is not positive, and that wellbeing has been negatively affected in the past few years.’ While many reported a sense of satisfaction with their work and workplace, a sizeable proportion of respondents reported low work satisfaction, citing excessive demands and not feeling recognised or valued. The research also showed a marked variance in how organisations support their workforce.

Significantly, the report’s recommendations focus on institutional level changes, noting that ‘all too often the responsibility for workforce wellbeing is levelled at the individual, rather than addressing cultural, structural and resourcing deficits.’ Acting on the needs reflected in its survey, however, the Museums Association has also created resources for individuals in its Wellbeing Hub.  

Supportive of the Museums Association campaign, the Curatorial Committee of the Association for Art History seeks to understand better whether art curators believe that workplace wellbeing is a topic of concern and whether there are wellbeing factors specific to working with art that they feel need to be acknowledged more widely within the sector.  As a curator who wishes to remain anonymous has noted, ‘Curators are often led to believe that they should feel “lucky” to have this job, and even though working as a curator is immensely rewarding, it comes with a very specific set of difficulties that we do not talk about enough.’ 

As a first step, Committee has prepared a short survey that asks art curators about their experience of workplace wellbeing issues, the wellbeing implications of their roles, actions they have taken to help ensure and sustain wellbeing, as well as their thoughts in relation to best practice. The survey’s results will be published in summary form here and will frame further steps.

Wellbeing affects many aspects of life, including the physical, emotional, psychological, social, spiritual, intellectual and economic. It is a subjectively experienced state, its characteristics varying from person to person; there is therefore no single accepted understanding or definition of wellbeing. It is commonly understood to mean, however, feelings of happiness and comfort and is associated with physical, emotional and mental health, the fulfilment of long-term goals, a sense of purpose and having control of one’s life.

Resources

Here are some links that we have found helpful, and hope that they may be useful for individuals seeking further guidance on this topic of workplace wellbeing. If you would like to suggest additional resources that you have found helpful, please contact us.

Museums Association: Workforce Wellbeing Summary

Museums Association: Wellbeing Hub

MHFA (Mental Health First Aid) Line Managers Resource

Mind: 5 Ways to Wellbeing

Culture Health and Wellbeing Alliance

Wellbeing People: ‘What Does Wellbeing Actually Mean’

Gemma Simons and David S. Baldwin, ‘A Critical Review of the Definition of “Wellbeing” for Doctors and their Patients in a post-Covid 19 Era’, International Journal of the Society of Psychiatry, December 2021.

Anne Helen Petersen, ‘How I’ve Changed My Thinking About Burnout’, Culture Study, November 2023.

November 2023

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