The idea of art and culture being incremental to both individual and communal well-being has been around for a while, but it has only started gaining wider support and recognition in the past decade, especially after the publication of A prospectus for arts and health by Arts Council England in 2007. I was aware of rising institutional attention to linking arts and health sectors, so when the placement with the Whitworth Gallery’s Arts for Health was advertised, I jumped at the opportunity to learn first-hand about their nationally awarded programme. As a mature student (MA Arts Management and Cultural Policy) with experience in museum education, I have always been interested in lateral, multidisciplinary interpretation of art and culture, especially when put to such a worthy use as health and well-being.

My 20-day placement involved several different tasks. The variety, I think, illustrates well the multitasking nature of work in the museums and galleries. There are days when the brain is exercised with the curatorial research of objects or ideas. Other times, you find yourself taking the audience around exhibits, hoping that your ways of explaining will be worthy of their understanding. And some days you’re cleaning display cabinets and unloading exhibits out of a van.

This week, I have been crocheting, researching, and curating coral. Curating may be too ambitious a word – I have been sorting out some crocheted and real coral, and a few crocheted squids and jelly fish, in the above mentioned, and cleaned, display cabinet. The display served as a little outreach postcard from Manchester Museum’s special exhibition “Coral: Something rich and strange”. The exhibition has been inspired by an international project that blends marine biology, mathematics, environmental science, handicraft and community art practice (www.crochetcoralreef.org) – that is admirably lateral and multidisciplinary. The starting point was the realisation that coral’s fantastic hyperbolic forms can be easily and accurately replicated – in crochet. The result of the project is a wider recognition of a variety of issues relating to the interesting mix of disciplines and numerous reefs, crocheted by museum visitors and displayed on 5 continents.

My task was to use some of the coral crocheted by the Manchester Museum visitors to assemble an “outreach reef” in the St. Mary’s Hospital. I had a lot of pretty coral but was missing a few other reef creatures, so I decided to crochet them myself, following the instructions from the Manchester Museum’s brochure. As a novice and not much of a hands-on person, I still managed to crochet several squids, anemones and jelly fish. I wholeheartedly endorse crochet as a serious confidence-booster for those who share my lack of kinaesthetic intelligence. I was a living proof of some of a case study findings reported in the ACE’s Prospectus for arts and health (2007):

  • Focusing on craft activity relaxed me
  • It gave me some time-out from the daily drag
  • It provided a sense of pride and achievement
  • Self-expressing through crochet assisted in acceptance of my often painful fingers
  • I have developed wider aspirations (I am planning to crochet a scarf)

In the end, my exhilaration was palpable. I wish I could have bottled it and presented it as a proof that community arts practice is worth funding, if not for the excellence of arts created then for the sheer value of well-being inspired in the participant.

Almost assembled outreach reef, made of plywood, real coral from the Manchester Museum’s collection and coral crocheted by the Museum’s visitors – my squids and jelly fish found their way into the final reef display through sheer nepotism