Museum Mentors

In 2013 I was lucky enough to be accepted to work with a museum community project called Museum Mentors, through an internal workforce development scheme set up at the Royal Pavilion and Brighton Museum Art Gallery. The workforce development was established to give opportunities to members of front line staff to learn and develop new skills. In my case I worked with the Museum Mentors group.

The Museum Mentors started in the Brighton Museum and Art Gallery in 2011 as a development of a project called Partners in Art run by Pallant House Gallery in Chichester. The Royal Pavilion, Brighton Museum and Care Co-ops (a Brighton-based social organisation working with disadvantaged communities, learning disabilities, and mental health support needs) formed a partnership to create, space, provide art materials and work with volunteer mentors to help vulnerable adults with disabilities and mental health issues use art as a way to express themselves.

At the same time through the GMB Learning Centre at the Royal Pavilion, I took a course in Mental Health Awareness, so I could learn, understand and develop approaches so I was able to give proper support within the group.

Mental health problems can affect anyone. In fact, statistics show that one in four of us will be diagnosed with some kind of mental health issue at one point in our lives. Given the prevalence of mental health issues, one would expect society to be tolerant and sympathetic. Sadly, this is often not the case. Despite being one of the most vulnerable groups in our society, people who experience mental distress are often subject to abuse, stigma, discrimination and even ridicule, so much that many individuals are reluctant to tell their families and friends about their difficulties and experiences.

However the future is relatively bright comparing to the way mental health issues were looked on in the old mental asylums fifty years ago. Nowadays, thanks to work in the community by therapy groups, support for families and friends, online help, and financial support to carers. Within this more optimistic climate many people with mental difficulties have gained the confidence to have greater say and control over their futures.

I initially volunteered for and was accepted as a support worker on the project for three months but enjoyed it so much I asked for and was granted a three month extension. For me personally after six months, my Museum Mentors experience has given me enormous satisfaction and I have learnt a lot from it; it has given me the opportunity to meet the person, the artist and not the condition. In particular I was involved in helping the group produce and then to set up an art exhibition of the paintings and short film they made. The exhibition is called Beyond the Mantelpiece and is currently being exhibited in Brighton Museum. I would encourage anyone who is in the area to come in and see the exhibition which is an inspiration.

In all it has been an eye opening experience and I have had the opportunity to learn new skills and use these to support those on the project. A survey by the University of Brighton has now recommended that the Museum Mentor model is extended to other museums, and networks amongst groups could be formed, holding forums and join exhibitions.

Finally I was recently delighted and touched to be invited to a ‘thank you’ event held especially for me by the group I worked with. I was given drawings and painting from each of the members. This made me feel I had really achieved something worthwhile and I really hope the workforce development scheme continues and so that the mutual benefits can continue to be enjoyed by other members of staff and those vulnerable adults who attend the Museum Mentors group.

Alberto Gomez, Visitor Services

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