Barber Health: Investigating the role of art in a Covid world

views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the University of Birmingham

“If we can make even a small difference to someone’s day through our activity, then we will have done something important and meaningful to support the mental and emotional wellbeing of residents, staff and carers.”


Since March 2020, when museums and galleries were forced to close their doors (and, of course, at the time of writing, they remain shut under the latest lockdown), the cultural sector has adapted and responded in rapid time. As is the case across all areas of professional and personal life, Covid has led to plenty of soul searching. What are museums and galleries for? What benefits do they bring to society and what value can museum professionals bring to this new world with its urgent challenges? Most importantly, how can we contribute, even on a small scale, to processes of reconnecting and recovery in our local communities? Barber Health is our response – a new flagship programme which places arts, health and wellbeing at the centre of our engagement activities.

Many of us have felt the benefits of art, culture and creative activity more than ever during these challenging times. Drawing, crafting, making…Grayson’s Art Club…watching a livestreamed play… painting a rainbow and popping it in your window (or dusting off the sewing machine to make NHS bunting as I did!)- whatever it looks like, the value of art and creativity to soothe, inspire, connect and heal in times of crisis has never been clearer.  So here at the Barber we believe we have a responsibility to use our world-class art collection and our engagement skills to bring some of these benefits to those who need them most and help address some of the big issues Covid has both foregrounded and created.  

Thanks to a major grant of £40,000 from the Art Fund’s Respond & Reimagine scheme, we have a unique opportunity to deliver a project that builds on our previous experience of working in this area, but will take the work to new levels and will specifically address Covid impacts by using multi-disciplinary professionalism and community engagement. Barber Health has four interconnecting strands of activity: a ‘Nurse in Residence’, ‘Death and Dying Community Conversations’, care home outreach and a social prescribing pilot.

With the Covid death toll in the UK now exceeding 100,000, society faces an epidemic of grief, and yet we are ill-equipped to talk about death and dying. The project’s Death and Dying Community Conversations will use the Barber’s art collection to facilitate digital and pop-up community conversations and explore creative responses around death, dying and bereavement in collaboration with relevant charities, University Hospitals Birmingham and GP practices across the city and student volunteers from the University of Birmingham’s medical school.  Through outreach to local care homes we’ll be delivering specially designed virtual gallery tours, live-streamed art workshops and Covid-safe tactile boxes for sharing.  If we can make even a small difference to someone’s day through our activity, then we will have done something important and meaningful to support the mental and emotional wellbeing of residents, staff and carers.

The project’s inaugural Nurse in Residence is Jane Nicol, Senior Lecturer at the University of Birmingham’s School of Nursing and a registered nurse who has specialised in palliative and end of life care. Over the next twelve months, Jane will be looking at the Barber’s collection through her unique lens and developing ways of using these major works of art to inform community healthcare and enrich medical training. But why a Nurse in Residence?

We’ve all heard of an artist in residence in a hospital, hospice or medical setting. This is common practice. But what would happen if we placed a healthcare professional in a cultural setting? I believe that galleries and museums need diverse workforces to survive and thrive in the 21st century. We’re operating in a world where boundaries are blurring. Given added urgency by this pandemic, finding new insights, new relevance and new applications for our collections and cultural institutions is work that cannot be done in a vacuum. I believe that we need to be brave and bold in our partnerships, collaborations and staffing profiles. My vision for museums and galleries of the future is to have health and care professionals on our staff teams…no longer an ‘added extra’ but an integrated part of our workforce. Our Nurse in Residence scheme is one small step to piloting this approach and one I hope will inspire future collaborations we haven’t even thought of yet.

We love to view the Barber’s art through fresh eyes and Jane will look at our collection through lenses that we have never even considered. As a healthcare professional Jane will bring insight, knowledge, experience and contacts that would take my team and me years to develop, if at all. Jane knows the systems, the opportunities and the problems that need addressing, and she can talk the language of healthcare to encourage and support community partners to collaborate and experiment.

Working with the health and care professionals of tomorrow is another priority for Barber Health. Jane and I have been collaborating since 2018 to design deliver academic sessions in the Barber galleries (and most recently digitally) for UoB nursing and medical students to facilitate learning about death, dying and bereavement. The Barber have also hosted two nursing students on an elective placement exploring dementia access and sharing the collection with those living with the disease. The impact of these sessions on student learning have been powerful. These learning experiences have changed student perceptions of the arts, encouraged consideration of ‘whole-person’ care and opened eyes to the possibilities of the arts in health and care to soothe, inspire, connect and heal, as demonstrated in one student’s reflection:

“As I was lucky enough to work with the Barber it has made me realise that in the nursing world of practice today, a person who’s in your care should not just be given physical help, such as a medication or plaster to help fix their problem. Having spent time at the Barber it has most definitely given me an insight into how looking at and interpreting art can help with so many different aspects to life, including mindfulness and helping to de-stress. I feel as if art activities and visiting art galleries should be prescribed just like other medications. Visiting an art gallery will definitely something I will try to encourage and recommend in my future career.”

Barber Health will see us working with more students from the College of Medical and Dental Sciences with placements already confirmed for fourth year Pharmacy students, giving the project deeper roots and a life beyond the twelve months of project delivery. Inspiring the health and care professionals of the future is a powerful and logical way of embedding the power of arts and culture within practice. Informed by other concurrent project elements as well as in-depth sector, academic and community enquiry is our social prescribing research and pilot. This will investigate how and where the Barber might help fill the gap left by the shrinking of social prescribing provision previously offered by the hard-hit charitable sector.

As we embark on Barber Health we step into unknown territory. The course of the pandemic remains uncertain and its long-lasting societal effects are yet to be fully witnessed. How we are able to work with communities and individuals, and share our collection over the next twelve months, remains relatively unknown. The project can adapt to online, hybrid or onsite delivery…since closure in March 2020 all of our engagement programmes have been delivered wholly online, which has presented numerous philosophical and practical issues to navigate. I also wonder, does the idea of a Nurse in Residence stand good? If I project forward and imagine writing a reflection on Barber Health in January 2022 I’m not sure what I’ll be writing. However, I do know that we will have utilised our art collection purposefully to make a positive difference in ways we can predict and in ways we can’t. But if 2020 has shown anything, it’s that predictions can be futile, so we shall explore, be brave, ask questions and respond accordingly.