Collections and exhibitions play a vital role in engaging people living with dementia to the joys of feeling once again connected to the real world. In recent studies, we have found that the benefits of a visit to the art gallery, with a dedicated tour, can transform and reconnect people living with dementia with astounding results. The exhibition space represents a powerful tool offering an alternative intervention.The rise of the “new institutionalism” allows this transformation and shift in function of the museum and art gallery to take place whereby social inclusion policies are now being integrated within museums throughout the world.
The Art and Dementia program was first established at Macquarie University in 2001 but due to lack of resources and funding the program ceased operation in 2005. However, last year we had the opportunity to revitalise this program using a sociological framework to extend the research and analysis. Initially, the vehicle for the research output was commenced using a pilot program in partnership with one of our local aged care facilities. This was augmented by a two day training session provided by the specialist team from the National Gallery of Australia’s Art and Alzheimer’s program. This training provided us with the necessary tools to set up a new program at Macquarie University aided by the ongoing support of the NGA team. We have designed a program to facilitate art as a means of renewing cognitive facilities of expression, emotions, thoughts, laughter, story and actions in a safe and quiet environment. From the outset, this program has proved to be successful in not only building new relationships with our local community but in creating an art space that has engaged this audience beyond our expectations. We are witnessing art as a conduit in opening up a dialogue for dementia sufferers whose world often exists in silence.
As competition and demand for public and private funding and greater accountability generate ever increasing concern amongst museums and galleries nationally, finding new ways of connecting effectively with local communities becomes more crucial. In this uncertain climate, consideration for instigating programs, like the art and dementia tours offered at Macquarie University Art Gallery, form a more viable option. However, there is no denying that despite the importance of this type of program, more research is needed to help secure vital funding support for ensuring future program sustainability. With this fact in mind, Macquarie University Art Gallery is actively engaged in sourcing new partners to facilitate further research into this fascinating area. Evidence to date globally does point to programs, like those involving art and dementia sufferers, giving a “voice” to vulnerable groups within our community, prompting wider links and connections in a broader sense, for the institution involved. Innovative programs like this can assist in bringing back the public focus to the immense diversity and importance of the social and cultural roles that our museums and galleries have to offer, within our communities.