Museums on Prescription: Tackling loneliness and isolation through social prescribing

Helen Chatterjee

Following the launch of the 2020 AHRC-Wellcome Trust Medical Humanities Awards, a national award celebrating the contribution of the arts and humanities to improving healthcare, health and wellbeing, we caught up with 2018 winner Professor Helen Chatterjee to find out more about her work and the highly successful project, Museums on Prescription.

The Museums on Prescription project ran between 2014-2017 exploring the value of museum-based social prescribing programmes for lonely older adults at risk of social isolation, funded by the AHRC. The project was a collaboration between University College London and Canterbury Christ Church University, as well as seven museums in central London and Kent who ran an exciting and stimulating range of programmes for older adults. Participants were referred by social and psychological services, and local third sector and community organisations.

Elderly people passing a musuem piece around for a tactile experience.
Example of an object handling session which was run as part of the Museums on Prescription project at the British Museum

In the first phase of the project we reviewed over 100 social prescribing schemes and assessed what worked; then in Phase 2 we translated these practices into action by carrying out 12, ten-week programmes of museums-based activities attended by over 100 participants in groups of around eight to ten. There were significant individual and group increases in psychological wellbeing occurring across the 10-week programme and across all museums. Participants particularly enjoyed meeting new people, doing creative activities, gaining confidence and learning new skills. As well as numerous research publications, the team co-produced a Guide to Working with Older Adults (PDF), including advice on how to develop similar programmes, which has created a lasting legacy for the project.

We received fantastic support and interest in Museums on Prescription. In 2017 we won the Royal Society for Public Health Arts and Health Award, and a Special Commendation from Public Health England (PHE) for Sustainable Development; PHE recognised the considerable potential for museums to play a key role in improving public health. Our review of social prescribing showed that over 60% of UK social prescribing schemes had no published evaluation, and other museums-based schemes were relatively short-lived, so we were especially keen to highlight the importance of developing cross-sector partnerships across academia, museums, health, social care and third sector organisations to develop innovative non-clinical, creative, health interventions, backed up by a robust evidence base.

This is especially timely and important as social prescribing has now been formally incorporated into the NHS Universal Personalised Care plan; this means that all healthcare professionals can now refer patients to non-clinical sources of support, such as museums and arts organisations, in their community.

In 2018 Museums on Prescription won the National Museums and Heritage Award for Best Educational Initiative. In the same year I then received the wonderful honour of winning the AHRC-Wellcome Leadership Award and being awarded the AHRC-Wellcome Health Humanities Medal. As well as the personal honour of receiving this recognition, winning these various awards has given publicity, kudos and advocacy to the whole Museums on Prescription initiative and the team.

The project would not have been possible without the involvement and support of our many partners, to whom we are indebted and we were also really lucky to work with a range of referral partners (see reference below). These organisations work tirelessly to support many vulnerable communities across the UK, and I am really pleased that many of our museum partners have continued to build lasting relationships with health, social care and third sector charities to support health and wellbeing, thanks to the Museums on Prescription research project.

A continuing legacy

Museums on Prescription featured in a special section of the All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) for Arts, Health and Wellbeing’s hugely influential Creative Health Inquiry Report from 2017 (p.128). This has led to the Museums on Prescription model being adopted by scores of museums across the UK and further afield in countries such as Taiwan, Singapore, Australia, Spain and Canada. These projects report similar psychosocial wellbeing outcomes for their participants but has also led to further research collaborations and additional funding. For example, on the back of Museums on Prescription I was invited to become an Advisor to the APPG for Arts, Health and Wellbeing and am one of the Steering Committee members helping to establish a new national Creative Health Centre.

This strategy initiative will help deliver the main recommendations from the Creative Health report and will have a trilateral relationship with the newly formed National Academy for Social Prescribing and the planned Institute for Personalised Care, which will oversee the implementation of the NHS’s Universal Personalised Care plan. We are really excited to be working in partnership with the NHS and other social prescribing initiatives to help grow and implement social prescribing, and this is a fantastic legacy for the Museums on Prescription project.

With my colleague’s Dr Rebecca Gordon-Nesbitt (lead author of the Creative Health report) and long-term collaborator Dr Linda Thomson, I am currently undertaking a piece of research on behalf of the AHRC regarding future research priorities about health inequalities across the UK. We are interested in how local and regional health disparities can be overcome, communities regenerated, barriers to participation removed (particularly in relation to cultural and green spaces, and other community assets), and a sense of place restored; this links with national agendas around personalised care and social prescribing. We would love to collect your views by inviting you to take part in a short survey which should take no longer than 15 minutes to complete. Please complete the survey and help us to inform future funding strategies at UKRI.

* The Medical Humanities Awards application deadline is 18 March 2020, where each winner will receive £5,000 in prize money.

About Helen Chatterjee

Helen Chatterjee MBE is a Professor of Biology at University College London, whose interdisciplinary research in arts and health has won a range of awards including a Special Commendation from Public Health England for Sustainable Development and most recently the Leadership Award at the inaugural AHRC-Wellcome Health Humanities Medal in 2018.

Helen co-founded the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance, is an advisor to the All Party Parliamentary Group on Arts and Health, sits on the Royal Society for Public Health’s SIG in Arts and Health, and the IUCN Section on Small Apes. In 2015 she received an MBE in 2015 for Services to Higher Education and Culture.

For more information about Helen visit: or follow Helen on Twitter: @h_chatterjee.

About the Museums on Prescription partners

The project partners included:

  • The British Museum
  • The British Postal Museum and Archive
  • Canterbury Museums and Galleries
  • The Beaney
  • Central Saint Martins Museum and Study Collection
  • Maidstone Museum & Bentlif Art Gallery
  • Tunbridge Wells Museums & Art Gallery
  • UCL Museums & Collections.

The project referral partners included:

  • Age UK in Camden,Canterbury, Islington, Maidstone and Tunbridge Wells
  • Camden Carers
  • Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust
  • The Claremont Project
  • Kent and Medway NHS Partnership Trust
  • Kent County Council.

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