My Friendly Museum: thousands of people with special needs have found their way into the Lithuanian National Museum of Art

  • 2024-01-08

The Lithuanian National Museum of Art sums up the experience of its project My Friendly Museum which is counting its third year. The project has brought together the educators of the LNMA, the health professionals and artists, enriching its participants with new competencies and diversifying the museum’s activities and their accessibility. Based on the study of its outcomes, it was helpful in coping with the problem of social exclusion and was emotionally beneficial to nearly 3, 000 individuals with special needs and in situations of social exclusion. In 2024, the project My Friendly Museum will carry on its mission across eight subdivisions of the LNMA in Vilnius, Klaipėda and Palanga.    

Arūnas Gelūnas: art as a life-changer 

‘Art changes human lives, and the mission of the museum is to create opportunities to every individual to experience the incredible potency of art to make a positive impact on an emotional, psychic and even physical being. I am proud that the Lithuanian Museum of Art is a forerunner in creating a friendly environment to individuals with special needs. The museum has brough the benefits of art closer to those who need them most,’ director general of the LNMA, Dr Arūnas Gelūnas expresses his enthusiasm about the project. 

‘The museum increasingly often is discovered as a place of social cohesion and a fosterer of psychological well-being. Together with the educators and the guides, we keep creating all kind of activities to promote openness and dialogue, and the experience accumulated in this field prompted the emergence of My Friendly Museum. It drew on the latest research on the powerful synergy of health and art, while the creative resources by the museum’s educators and the artists, and their ability to think out of the box have by far surpassed not only the expectations by the target groups, but also our own,’ deputy director general of the LNMA Jolanta Marcišauskytė-Jurašienė shares her satisfaction. She also points out the fact that the project has considerably expanded the range of the services offered by the museum, making them also easier accessible to individuals of special needs.

Over two years of the project My Friendly Museum, 189 educational events were held, involving 922 children and young adults, and 1820 adults, in total, 2742 individuals. The design and the implementation of these evolutions brought together 42 lecturers and artists. Contributed also 35 organizations from different locations in Lithuania, among them, the Trakai Employment Centre for People with Disabilities, the public institutions Autism Friendly, the Child Psychiatry Section under the Child Development Centre of Vilnius University Hospital Santaros Klinikos, and other.   

Professional’s view: it is a project of a new quality 

The transformations taking place in the museum are perceived equally positively by the partners of the project and the visitors to the museums and the galleries of the LNMA. The rooms of the museum hosting art displays turn into a safe and welcoming space to the visitors, while the artists participating in educational workshops unlock the imagination and self-expression of their audience.  

‘My Friendly Museum stands out through its aspiration and quality,’ according to the psychiatrist and art therapist Nijolė Goštautaitė-Midttun, who is also one of the partners of the project. ‘First of all, the tested activities, also the number of participating museums and the opportunity to use the existing collections and exhibitions, as well as the variety of participating specialists, elevate this project to a new quality.’ 

Another important distinction of My Friendly Museum is its interdisciplinary character. The collaboration of the artists, and educators, of the health, psychology and art therapy experts led to design, test and select the most valuable practices benefiting from interdisciplinary collaborations. 

Nijolė Goštautaitė-Midttun helped the museum’s educator-team to shape their methodology, but not only. They learned how to manage the expectations in connection to the project’s outcomes and to sustain the enthusiasm, necessary to carry on the activities of My Friendly Museum in the future. According to the specialist, it is important to realize that the work with the individuals with special needs will not result in major changes here and now, yet to continue the activities is paramount. The happy hours in the museum, creative forgetfulness, the interactions and participation are beneficial not only at that particular moment, they also help to alleviate the long-term exclusion of individuals with health issues. 

The museum’s educator-team evolving together with the project 

Before embarking on work with children and adults with special needs, the museum’s educators had to be educated first. Led by the mentors from the public institutions, such as the Autism Friendly, the Children Support Centre, the Initiative of Psychic Health, they acquired the knowledge which prepared them for some unpredictable challenges and reduced their prejudices, should they have any.  

‘The design of the events adjusted to the expression and the needs of their visitors taught the museum educators some unique knowledge through the collaborations with the invited lecturers and the artists. They practiced flexibility in establishing a contact with the participants during education events and learned to approach their needs from a different angle, to gain courage in creating and sharing,’ according to the head of the project Daiva Banikonienė, also curator of education programmes at the Radvila Palace Museum of the LNMA. 

‘The training and supervising practice as part of the project provided the educators of the museum with the understanding of a range of visitor groups and their individual needs. They drew on their experience of long years, learning to understand what health improvement objectives can be sought through education events of the museum. The project My Friendly Museum strengthened their competences as art educators and experts of their field working with individuals with special needs,’ Rima Pavilionytė, senior educator of Vytautas Kasiulis Museum of Art, and head of the project’s supervising programme describes the process. 

According to the head of the project D. Banikonienė, these new activities of the museum unplug the visitors’ strongest abilities and help to experience positive emotions. Feeling safe, of course, is the most important thing. ‘Step by step we create a museum friendly to everyone, a place where everyone is welcome and can experience the joy of acquaintance with art.’

The participants: thank you for your kindness and positive emotions 

In order to evaluate the impact of the project My Friendly Museum on its participants, the museum has conducted a survey of the staff of the LNMA and its partners. The impact on the visitors with special needs has been analysed from the answers of their accompanying – or interacting with them on a daily basis – individuals. 

All of the respondents stated a positive momentary impact on the participants (100 %) and a positive impact of the events on their behaviour (82 %). All of the participants of the survey communicated satisfaction with the evolutions organized by the LNMA and their partners, and their desire to visit the museum again (100 %). Eighty two percent of respondents noted that the practice reduced, for a short while, social exclusion, while 91 % have expressed hopes that the events organized by My Friendly Museum can alleviate a long-term social exclusion and increase a long-term accessibility of cultural services.    

The social partners of My Friendly Museum – the caregivers of people with disability and the specialists working with them – also see the value of the project. The established collaboration with the museum has improved the quality of the services to people with disabilities (100 %), has also increased the accessibility of the services to the accompanying individuals (91 %), while the specialists have gained new ideas and inspiration to perfect the standards of their work (91 %). 

The artist Juozas Laivys: the importance of being what you are 

Alongside with the educators and the health specialists, some Lithuanian artists have been included to design programmes for an audience with a range of needs and abilities of expression. Juozas Laivys, a creator of contemporary art, was among them. 

Laivys, who previously had worked with the individuals with mental disabilities up to the age 40, admits that the meeting with the audience with very different sensitivities and experience was very important to him. 

‘Their sincerity has been so moving that I have put aside all I had pre-planned. I created on the spot things interesting to us. We worked as much as it was possible. On the other hand, it was similar to my daily creative practice. I believe most artists do not follow any clear agenda nor keep to strict deadlines, let us say, establishing that on Saturday I will create till 2 p.m., and afterwards I’ll stop. We did not aspire to create a work of art. What mattered, was being together, being part of a group, of belonging versus being alone, in other words, being the way you are,’ the artist thus sums up his experience with the Friendly Museum.  

My Friendly Museum to roll into the year 2024 

The project of My Friendly Museum appears to the LNMA an opportunity of achieving its mission – to help people to experience a positively power of art on their mundane life. As the project continues in 2024, there are plans to include more collaborating artists to run the special-needs events for children and adults designed and refined over the course of two years. The finance allocated by the Lithuanian Council for Culture for the year 2024 is another proof how unique and looked-for My Friendly Museum is. The participants of the project of the LNMA, the educators, health specialists and the artists will share their three-year experience at an open conference projected for the end of thia year.     

The aim of the project My Friendly Museum is to expand the range and accessibility of activities to museum audiences with special needs and in situations of exclusion. It refers to a museum which is friendly and individualized, a realm of inner experience, feelings and personal competences. The public agencies Autism Friendly, Children Support Centre, the Initiative of Psychic Health are partners in the project’s educational activities.  

Head of Communication and Marketing Department Rūta Statulevičiūtė-Kaučikienė, tel. +370 667 08548, el. p. [email protected]

The Lithuanian National Museum of Art is one of the largest national art museums in Lithuania with the aim of building, safekeeping, researching, conserving, restoring, curating and exhibiting the collections of the arts and cultural artefacts of national significance at its nine divisions in Vilnius, Klaipėda, Palanga, and Juodkrantė.