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James Museum debuts special tours for dementia patients

Bill DeYoung



The "Art in Mind" program at the James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art introduces dementia patients to art, via specially-trained docents. Photo provided.

A new program at the James Museum of Western & Wildlife Art introduces art – in a very specific way – to people with dementia. “Art in Mind,” consisting of gallery tours led by specially-trained docents, was created in strategic partnership with the University of South Florida’s Judy Genshaft Honors College.

According to a 2020 report published by the Alzheimer’s Association, there is an urgent need for resources designed specifically for dementia patients.

Dr. Catherine Wilkins, Associate Dean and Associate Professor of Instruction at USF, contacted James Museum administration in 2023. “She did something similar at the Tampa Museum of Art, and she asked if we’d be open to doing this,” said Julie Matus, the museum’s Director of Education and Public Programs. “And I said yes, because I thought it would be fantastic.

“It’s rooted in a program that the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA) in New York did. They ended up doing a lot of research and discovered what the program had to offer for people with dementia.”

Wilkins created a yearly Capstone class for Honors College students, then contacted the James. “The program is really designed first and foremost to create a safe and inclusive space,” Wilkins explained. “Where people who have dementia and might feel ostracized because of their difficulty accessing their memories, and finding the right words, where they can feel comfortable experimenting with communication.

“And really connecting with a side of themselves that they may have lost over the years. We believe that art is a really powerful tool for helping people access their emotions and memories.”

It’s been medically proven, she said, that accessing and talking about art – in a safe and comfortable place – has a positive effect. There are two teaching methods, both utilized by art museums over the last 20 years, according to Wilkins. “One is called Visual Thinking Strategies, and the other is called The Personal Response Method,” she said.“ These methods of interaction, she added, were perfected at MOMA.

“So we had the students here for a full semester, learning the methodology and the theory behind it,” Matus said. “And their culminating activity was to actually lead a tour with a group of clients with Alzheimer’s and dementia. We worked with three different memory care units who brought in patients.”

After the students were trained in the methodology, museum docents were brought in to learn, too. “We have 10 docents who went through a training that focused on these techniques,” Matus added. “We’ve had a few tours come through, and now we’re getting a lot of calls and interest from memory care units and assisted living facilities.

“And Baycare has taken notice – they have a great network – so we have a couple of groups organized by Baycare. So it’s just starting to get organized.”

Several students from the 2023 class have returned to volunteer in 2024.

For information about the Art in Mind program, click here.








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