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A clearer view on the healing power of the arts

Florence Nightingale was a practical, highly experienced nurse who advocated the role of beauty, aesthetics and nature in medical practice. She believed buildings with windows, beautiful views, central…

The view out of a hospital window can make a big difference to patients and to staff. Miranda Lawry

Florence Nightingale was a practical, highly experienced nurse who advocated the role of beauty, aesthetics and nature in medical practice. She believed buildings with windows, beautiful views, central courtyards and light were imperative for the healing process.

Nightingale’s insights resonate with current research initiatives associated with the burgeoning field of Arts Health – which links health communities and artists for mutual benefit. In November, federal health minister Peter Dutton endorsed a National Arts and Health framework to support a coordinated approach to arts and health.

The new framework advocates collaborative partnerships between sectors and between the state and federal health systems – in the name of better outcomes for patients and health workers.

There’s a growing body of evidence that shows it’s good for patients and health workers to engage with the arts. What’s more, it provides artists with opportunities to exhibit, perform and engage in activities that promote inclusion, wellbeing and enriched lives.

What is Arts Health?

In Australia Arts Health has produced some significant outcomes for both patients and hospital staff and is at the cutting edge of interdisciplinary research. It combines insights from the visual arts, creative writing, design, architecture, medicine and alternative therapies – and its reach extends to hospitals, schools, aged-care facilities and clinics.

The US project Cirque De-Stress is a great example of what an Arts Health approach can achieve: it promotes stress reduction and mental health awareness through circus practice. In another US initiative, the Alzheimer’s Poetry Project, Alzheimer’s patients are read poems from their childhood. The UK-based Music for Health and Wellbeing project is self-explanatory – and there are thousands of other health-inducing, life-affirming initiatives thriving around the world.

Evidence-based scientific studies have shown the benefits of Arts Health practice in job satisfaction among healthcare professionals, shorter hospital time for patients and improved facets of behaviour, including mental health, among residents of health care communities.

An innovative, flexible and varied field, Arts Health is a perfect medium through which to explore the multifaceted needs of the healthcare environment.

Why the view out the window matters

Over the last two decades, practitioners working in Australia have explored new terrain in Arts Health.

Miranda Lawry, co-author of this article, has spent extensive periods as an artist-in-residence at Newcastle hospitals. She is a photographic artist interested in the work of Swedish healthcare design researcher Roger S. Ulrich, particularly his work on biophilia, that is, the health benefits of environments rich in natural views.

Following Ulrich, Lawry’s art has addressed the healing properties of the hospital window. New hospital buildings require specialist architecture, lighting and ventilation to house new technologies – but not necessarily many extensive or expansive windows.

From 2000 to 2003 Lawry was part of an Arts Health team that investigated new options providing patients and staff with views at Newcastle’s John Hunter Hospital. This was part of a larger project titled Vulnerable Bodies: Art, Architecture and the Public Body in a Hospital Environment.

“Sky Windows” installation. Miranda Lawry

The team explored research on healthcare environments that provide positive visual distractions as a means of promoting wellness by reducing stress. The result, the “Sky Window” project, involved fitting corridor windows at the hospital with custom-made light boxes into which abstracted landscape images were placed.

The team worked with Dr Paul Thomas, then the Head of Nuclear Medicine at the hospital, and a gifted amateur photographer. Thomas' scenes formed the basis of the window images, demonstrating a symbiotic, highly engaged collaborative process between medical practitioner and artist.

Such projects challenge and replace the mundane, chocolate-box images that have traditionally been placed on the walls of hospital waiting rooms and corridors.

Lawry was also involved in the Moving the Royal, Framing the Memories project when the Royal Newcastle Hospital was closed in 2006.

This addressed the response of staff to the closure of the iconic, beach-side hospital.

Inspired again by the healing properties of windows, Lawry asked staff to identify their favourite views, then photographed them for an installation in a prominent “memorial” space at the John Hunter Hospital – the site to which staff were transferred.

Staff were actively involved in this collaborative process, and endorsed the benefits of the project, including its role in assisting them to navigate change, to deal with loss, and to face their work-based futures with a sense of ownership.

“Moving the Royal Framing the Memories” installation at the Royal Newcastle Centre. Miranda Lawry

Arts health is thriving in Australia

In Australia, a leader internationally, Arts Health has a promising future and there are many organisations devoted to promoting its ideas.

The Institute for Creative Healthis a not-for-profit organisation that was established in 2006 as the Arts for Health Foundation. This body’s primary goal is to establish long-term support for Arts Health advocacy, research and practice paradigms across health areas in general and to embed the arts in our approaches to health and wellbeing.

Likewise, Arts and Health Australia – an advocacy organisation dedicated to improving health through artistic engagement – held its sixth annual conference in Sydney on November 12-14.

Experts from all over the world – including medical researchers, medical, nursing and allied health professionals, art therapists, educators, policy-makers and artists – gathered to discuss best practice in arts and health.

The success of the conference went a long way to confirm the significance and robust future of Arts Health both in Australia and worldwide.

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9 Comments sorted by

  1. Stephen Ralph

    carer at n/a

    Photographs and pictures are OK, but there is nothing like the real thing.

    I haven't been into a hospital that hasn't been sterile and clinical.
    Architecturally they are depressing and soulless.

    I often think they are designed that way to encourage inmates NOT to come back.

  2. Diane Bruhn

    ocassional activist

    I think hospital staff who openly express compassion, kindness and love, and stay in touch with their feelings, help people heal. When people are sick and hospitalised, warmth expressed by those around them reduces the risk of isolation and alienation setting in. I think connecting staff and patients to the arts sounds great, but won't be of much use if staff are run off their feet due to under staffing or over the top bureaucratic demands being placed on them. If the introduction of Arts into hospital…

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  3. Pat Moore


    The case of the Newcastle hospital on the coast with its seaside views duly photographed and mounted on the walls of its new inland premises seems more like a case of cruel mockery than art. A sad substitute. Wonder what structure/s replaced it and for what reason. Something to do with views and money do doubt.

    Yes embattled Nature is healing, so a great antidote especially in the clinical sterilized four depressing walls scenario but the possibility of invasive microbes renders the necessity for only a virtual experience no doubt. Colour therapy is therefore vitally important to break the soul-destroying blizzard of white and stainless silver. And images with layers and dreaming depths..... to speak of vivid life, health and happiness instead of sickness and a sterile as possible death.

    And another avenue of income/ lifeline to the always struggling, starving in the garret artist.

  4. Gordon Angus Mackinlay

    Clinical Psychologist

    Oddly, I gave the last for the year in-house training lecture for the organisation for whom I work, on Monday, filmed and sent to the various facilities owned via Skype.

    Discussing patient rehabilitation by the use of environment, I using the ''Flo' Nightingale hospitals in which I trained as a Army Apprentice in the British Army, as a Registered General Nurse and then a Registered Psychiatric Nurse as examples.

    Such as the Military Hospitals of the Royal Victoria at Netley on Southampton Waters…

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  5. Nev Williams
    Nev Williams is a Friend of The Conversation.


    Don't forget the sanatoria - hospital/resorts that were developed for treatment of tuberculosis in the early 20th century before antibiotics became prevalent.

    These were often built in beautiful mountainous areas and a regime that included plenty of rest and fresh air.

  6. Dr Caroline Wright

    logged in via Twitter

    I disagree as Florence Nightingale was NOT a practical, highly experienced nurse. In fact history questions whether or not she completed her nurse training which she underwent overseas. She did not involve herself in practical nursing as the status of her family dictated that she be involved in administration rather than in any clinical work which was to be undertaken by the women of the lower classes.

    She developed the discipline of nursing within a military, bureaucratic structure where nurses were subservient to the doctors and were there to carry out the orders of the doctors. Her insistence on this edict prevented nursing being developed as a discipline in its own right.

  7. Gordon Angus Mackinlay

    Clinical Psychologist

    'Flo' knocking is prerogative of people of a certain political stance, and who have very little actual knowledge of the woman, her life and achievements.

    Since the 1990's the British nursing union Unison, which freely admits that it is left wing and feminist, has led the battle to destroy Ms Nightingale's reputation. What says it all for these people that run a union that has a awful reputation for support and care of its members within the UK is that leadership presented to its members at its…

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    1. Donald Runcie


      In reply to Gordon Angus Mackinlay

      Florence N. was an accomplished statistician. She organised data into a selection of pie charts to finally persuade the incompetent British senior military that they were losing more troops because of avoidable sickness than due to enemy action.

      She sent one of her staff out to Sydney when the then new Sydney Hospital was being designed to be built in Macquarie Street, to advise on the design of the Nurses' Home. This was subsequently known as the Nightingale Wing.

  8. Gordon Angus Mackinlay

    Clinical Psychologist

    Whilst the concept of sanatoriums set in beautiful mountain regions a la Sound of Music did exist (and still do in a different role today) in the range of mountains in the region from France to Austria, they were there for those who could afford such.

    The average person from the 1870's could not afford such, and the average sanatorium was set up in a clean, clear rural setting.

    The only such that I know of in the UK that would fit such was Craig-y-nos Castle, on the edge of the Brecon Beacons…

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