Blog Health Care

Using art museum resources to make an impact

Written by Allison Taylor, head of education and community engagement at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum at Washington University in St. Louis

This post explores two initiatives at the Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum that connect visual art to healthcare. These programs illustrate the interdisciplinary ways in which medical professionals and those in their care can interact with and benefit from the humanities.

Allison Taylor leading KARE gallery discussion
Allison Taylor leading KARE gallery discussion

Kemper Art reaches everyone

The Mildred Lane Kemper Art Museum, part of the Sam Fox School of Design & Visual Arts at Washington University in St. Louis, launched Kemper Art Reaches Everyone (KARE) nearly five years ago. KARE is designed for adults with early-onset to moderate Alzheimer’s and other dementias. Since it began this arts engagement program has served hundreds of people in the St. Louis region. When designing and piloting the KARE program, museum education staff consulted with professionals at the Alzheimer’s Association and with Brian Carpenter, associate professor of psychology in Arts & Sciences, who studies aging and communication. After a pilot period of four sessions, the KARE program was officially launched in January 2012 and is now offered monthly.

Also instrumental to the success of KARE is the dedication of Lynn Friedman Hamilton, president of Maturity and its Muse, a nonprofit organization that promotes positive and productive aging through the arts; Hamilton coordinates with memory care facilities to schedule their visits and advocates for KARE in the St. Louis region. From the beginning, psychology students have been an integral part of KARE by volunteering each month to pair up with KARE participants during the art-making portion of the program and provide assistance in moving the groups around the gallery. An exciting outgrowth of the students’ efforts and engagement with KARE is an internship offered through the Psychological & Brain Sciences Department to a student interested in aging issues. The intern works not only with the Museum KARE program but also with the Alzheimer’s Association and Parc Provence, an area memory care facility that is a leader in the field.

Alzheimer’s and dementia programs have existed in art museums in various forms for over twenty years. While part of the Kemper Art Museum’s program was modeled on The Museum of Modern Art’s Meet Me at MoMA initiative, there are several unique aspects to KARE that are intended to enliven all five senses and provide a well-rounded visual arts experience. First, the museum enlists the expertise of professional dancer Alice Bloch, who works with several area memory care facilities. Bloch leads participants in breathing and movement exercises inspired by the art. These light exercises at various intervals help keep the group focused and alert during the two-hour program. Second, to add a tactile sensation to the experience of engaging with Joshua Reynolds’s Portrait of Mrs. Charles Ogilvie, museum education staff pass around small swatches of cloth and fur meant to represent different textures found in the painting. Finally, the KARE program concludes in the Museum classroom where professional artist Maria Ojascastro leads the group in an art-making exercise that uses vintage photographs, records, patterned paper, and magazines. During the art-making portion, refreshments are provided and participants are encouraged to socialize and interact with KARE volunteers.

Alice Bloch leading KARE movement exercises
Alice Bloch leading KARE movement exercises

The gallery discussion in KARE usually centers on narrative works of art that have figurative elements. For example, Museum education staff often use Thomas Dewing’s Brocart de Venise (Venetian Brocade) to incorporate the sense of sound. Interactive questions such as “Does anyone play a musical instrument?” or “What kind of music do you like to listen to?” often elicit memories related to music and social engagements. To delve more deeply into the sense of sound, Bloch demonstrates dance moves to spinet (an instrument depicted in the painting) music played on an iPad and encourages the group to move along with her.

Art of Observation

The second Kemper Art Museum program that connects visual art to healthcare is Art of Observation, which is offered to students at the Washington University School of Medicine. Using works of art as launching points for discussions, writing exercises, and analysis, these future doctors hone their observational and descriptive abilities, form interpretations using visual evidence, and improve their verbal and nonverbal communication skills. For Art of Observation, Kemper education staff cover the artwork labels so students have to make assessments and determinations using only their observational skills.

Art of Observation tour for WashU medical students.
Art of Observation tour for WashU medical students.

Art of Observation begins with an exercise meant to test observational abilities. Students are given three minutes to look at a painting and then are instructed to turn away from the work and write down everything they saw. Directed by museum educators, participants take turns giving one observed detail they have listed. This continues until only the student who has observed the most details remains. After this ice-breaking experience, students are led in an interactive discussion about what might be happening in the painting, with Kemper education staff encouraging students to back up their conclusions with visual evidence.

A favorite work of art for Art of Observation visual analysis is George Caleb Bingham’s Daniel Boone Escorting Settlers through the Cumberland Gap. Bingham’s work is layered with metaphor and symbolism regarding American westward expansion and is a perfect painting to engage medical students’ interpretation and communication skills. Starting broadly, Kemper educators encourage students to state what they see and what they think might be going on in the painting. Then, using the students’ observations, educators add layers of content and context such as religious symbolism and references to classical Greek and Roman art. Questions such as “What is the effect of having Christian symbolism in a painting about American westward expansion?” or “Why would an artist painting in the 19th century make references to classical Greek and Roman art?” aid in the interactive discussions and help medical students realize they must observe carefully before jumping to conclusions. Art of Observation ends with a Six Word Story exercise that challenges students to capture the essence of a work of art in six words. Programs similar to Art of Observation are offered at Yale University, Harvard University, and dozens of other universities across the country.

Programs similar to KARE and Art of Observation will continue to thrive as more and more people realize the benefits of weaving the arts and humanities into the healthcare disciplines.