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Can a Museum Exhibit Help Reduce Stigma?

Mental health conversations with kids can be facilitated by museum exhibits.

Key points

  • Science museums can be effective vehicles for learning among children.
  • It is important to address mental health stigma early, as negative stereotypes are absorbed during childhood.
  • The Mental Health: Mind Matters exhibit can be an effective way to engage children in conversations around mental health.

This post was co-authored by Paul Piwko.

When you’re a parent of young children (generally, kids under 11), you know how important it is to have access to activities that can engage them in a positive way, especially on weekends. Parents routinely report that their kids are “bouncing off the walls” when they stay at home for long stretches, something that parents all around the country collectively experienced during the pandemic when schools, museums, and even parks shut down in many locations. For parents who want to get their children away from the attention-sucking panacea of screens, it is especially helpful for there to be community activities where they can move around and learn at the same time.

When my children were young, I experienced the same challenges, but I always knew that I could rely on a trip to a science museum (like New York’s American Museum of Natural History) to take them somewhere where they could see an informative exhibit that would also engage them. Research supports that museums can be effective vehicles for learning among children. If the exhibit was truly interesting, then I would learn something too, and we could even have a family discussion about something important that drew from our shared experience at the museum.

Science museums have traditionally focused on “hard science” exhibits that explain concepts derived from physics, chemistry, or biology (e.g., how electricity works) and have shied away from addressing human psychology. Exhibits about mental health and illness have been typically ignored by science museums and left to more historical exhibits within abandoned hospitals (such as the Oregon State Hospital Museum of Mental Health). These exhibits would generally not be of interest to families with young children as they do not feature any “fun” or “interactive” elements that research supports is needed to engage restless young minds. There are also questions about whether more historically-oriented exhibits could be expected to decrease mental health stigma (e.g., negative stereotypes of dangerousness, incompetence, and inability to recover) as they might instead increase the sense of mental illness as something that is strange and to be pitied rather than something that can be related to as a part of the human experience.

However, a new traveling exhibit called Mental Health: Mind Matters, which has just opened at Museum of Science, Boston, points toward a potentially different way to initiate conversations about mental health issues that can engage parents and children alike. Addressing stigma among children is especially important since we know that negative stereotypes are absorbed during childhood as part of the socialization process (including from popular media such as movies), such that they are considered to be part of the general knowledge about the world that one takes for granted by the time one reaches adulthood. As I’ve previously discussed, this can then be especially problematic if one experiences mental health concerns at a later age and assumes that the negative stereotypes are true about oneself. Engaging kids in conversations that challenge these assumptions at an earlier age can help to interrupt this process and prevent the shame and low self-esteem that so many people diagnosed with mental illnesses go through. It might also help kids to be more supportive of their peers if they encounter mental health concerns in their social circle.

Mental Health: Mind Matters was developed in 2018 by The Science Museum of Minnesota in partnership with NAMI-Minnesota as an adaptation of an exhibition that was previously developed by Heureka, the science center of Finland. The exhibit was developed to be interactive and child-friendly, and centers around four different themes: mental health is part of overall health; empathy-building experiences (including personal stories of real, relatable, people discussing their experiences with mental illness); the importance of expressing emotions; and the importance of encouraging help-seeking and being supportive to others. A goal of the exhibit is for it to be both validating and supportive to visitors with existing mental health issues, as well as a vehicle for breaking down negative stereotypes among those without existing mental health issues who can in turn be more supportive of others.

Can such an exhibit really work at reducing stigma and be child-friendly at the same time? Analyses of data that a group of colleagues (Paul Piwko, Peter Szto, Renne Folzenlogen and others) and I conducted from when MH:MM was exhibited at the Fort Collins Museum of Discovery* in Colorado in late 2020/early 2021 suggest that this might be possible. We drew data from two sources of information provided to us by the museum: deidentified index card responses completed by 108 visitors in response to the prompt “Let’s Talk About It: Share Your Story,” and the responses of 48 randomly approached visitors to a number of structured questions about the exhibit. Our goal was to understand what the experience of the exhibit was like for visitors, and if it impacted stigma or facilitated a sense of being understood or validated. Findings from our analyses (which are reported in an article available online in the journal Museums and Social Issues), support that people with lived experience of mental health issues can find attending such an exhibit validating and supportive.

For example, a prominent theme in index card responses (appearing in 85% of them) was “Acknowledgement of Own Struggle,” in which attendees wrote poignant statements about their personal experiences with mental health issues. Notably, while some might think that an exhibit that inspired such disclosures might be too “serious” or “heavy” to also be child-friendly, responses to the surveys indicated that this was not the case. When asked to share what their favorite part of the exhibit was, 27% spontaneously gave responses that were coded as “child-appropriate activities.” Similarly, when asked about how the exhibit might affect their future thinking or actions, 25% of responses were coded as “facilitating nonjudgmental conversations.” These responses suggest that many attendees found the exhibit to be both child-appropriate and something that could facilitate conversations about difficult, but important, topics.

Interest in the use of museums to address mental health stigma seems to be growing. In its 2022 Trendswatch report, the American Alliance of Museums devoted an entire section to how museums can be community pillars in the realm of mental health, and another section to how museums can be pillars for the education of children. Whether or not Mental Health: Mind Matters can have a long-lasting impact on stigma has not yet been investigated, but it is certainly plausible that it can be a jumping-off point for dialogues within a family that can be continued. Readers residing in the Boston area are encouraged to check out Mental Health: Mind Matters and see for themselves.

*Note: The research at FCMoD was sponsored by Assumption University.

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