Ruth Clarke, Learning Associate – Inclusion, Fitzwilliam Museum & University of Cambridge Museums (UCM), shares the first of three nature inspired blog posts in which older people provide insights into the question

can engaging with nature, through art and artefacts, have similar health and wellbeing benefits as the experience of being with nature in-person?’

Throughout 2022 this question is being explored as part of Age Well, the UCM’s cultural engagement framework for older people living in or receiving care, for whom access to the natural world is frequently limited. The programme is developed and led by Alison Aye, Ruth Clarke and Sarah Villis.

The themes of Sky, Trees and Water, from the Fitzwilliam Museum’s True to Nature exhibition, have been used to shape the Age Well activity programme, using artworks from the Fitzwilliam Museum and artefacts from across the UCM consortium and University to form a collections-based ‘gateway to the natural world’.

This post shares the connections, experiences, and interpretations created by participants in response to the theme of ‘sky’. Over 130 people from 16 different groups/settings took part in the programme and were invited to take time to look, share, imagine, choose music – and when facilitated by dance artist, Filipa Pereira-Stubbs – to move.

The sky-themed items explored included artworks of dramatic weather conditions, the lone cloud, the rising sun, the moon, and the galaxy that surrounds us, along with the fantastical globe collection and gallery at the Whipple Museum of the History of Science.

Gazing at nature

The act of representing nature in art is inherently about the intent of the artist, their motivation, artistic influences, resources, and skill, whereas the act of experiencing nature, in the world, is more likely to be unmediated and framed by our senses, personal influences, lifestyle and opportunity. What happens then, when we experience the artist’s, carefully considered ‘view of nature’ as opposed to the multi-sensory, fluidity of nature itself? What is the difference in the experience had … is it more emotionally heightened in art for instance with the artists and our imaginations mingling, or more immersive and visceral in-person?

To start to understand the specific wellbeing benefits of exploring nature through art, the Age Well team are recording people’s responses to the collection items using a variety of embedded techniques which generate insights into and interpretations of the artists ‘composed and imagined natural world’.

The voices that follow have been edited to represent prevailing ideas, feelings and motifs. The edits are from recordings made during sessions at Arthur Rank Hospice, Bramley Court Care Home, the Community Hub, eight Cambridge City Council sheltered Housing schemes and with participants in the Worthwhile Waiting social prescribing pilot for people with muscular-skeletal related chronic pain.

A lifetime of looking, sky memories …

An audience of seated older people in a gallery at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Some are smiling
Participants enjoying an Age Well session at the Fitzwilliam Museum

All sessions begin with a period of relaxation using music and gentle movement as a way of preparing people for the time ahead and stepping away from concerns and busy minds. This is often followed by activities where people start the process of exploring the theme through invitations to recall and share personal connections, recollections and understanding, slowly building up a visual and sensory collage.

Scotland, peace, all around me is mist, it lifts, and I can see right out at sea and coming towards me is the darkest, scariest weather front …

Lying on the beach, waiting for the clouds to open and the light to come through – like a flower blossoming, warmth on my skin, relax, time to nap

Out of the train window, losing myself, watching the shadows of clouds as they pass swiftly over the hills and fields.

Camping, sitting in the porch, the kids bored, frustrated, watching yet more clouds and rain come towards us

On a mountain top, there’s silence, everything stops for the snow, blue sky, fluffy white clouds, mist starts to form and then we are surrounded by it –we are in the clouds, leaving the world behind us.

The wind blows, the light changes, the sea changes – over and over again, I stand transfixed

Responses from participants

Interpreting and imagining, skies in museum collections

Each artwork or artefact is explored by taking the time to look carefully and explore the composition, colour pallet, techniques, dynamics and form. Prompts from the facilitators support people in doing this. The facilitator then introduces a new set of prompts or ideas that set the scene for people’s imaginations to come into play; these prompts slowly build through the senses. The final stage of looking and imagining is the invitation ‘to step into the artwork’ and assume a place, a motivation, a role in doing this, perhaps as the artist, an onlooker, a character or animal depicted within – the place where you locate yourself and the motivation for being there being the keys to unlocking this experience. In the Age Well Dance with the Museum sessions, this ‘imagining’ is followed by group members selecting music and creating shared soundscapes with dance artist, Filipa Pereira-Stubbs, who facilitates a process of bringing the whole self to the artwork through music and dance.

Participant voices

An image of J.M.W Turner's Venice, Storm at Sunset
Venice storm at sunset, 1840-42, J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851)

A shimmering gossamer sky, a golden translucence that calms; Venice is wrapped in a sky of soft white changing to blue, to pink to yellow, like a fine, warm blanket pulled up around me, like the sunrise coming.
Extract from Worthwhile Waiting, social prescribing participants

Image of Sky study with a shaft of sunlight, 1882, J. Constable (1776-1837)
Sky study with a shaft of sunlight, 1882, J. Constable (1776-1837)

A picture of hope, I have been here recently, a dark overcast sky, the sun will break through soon, shafts of light trying to get out of the darkness; so many times, I’ve seen this cloud as I travel across the Fens, miles and miles and miles of sky.
Extract from Ditchburn Place and Talbot House Sheltered Housing participants

Sky study with a shaft of sunlight, 1882, J. Constable (1776-1837)

Alone, early morning, space, no one near, bliss, sun coming up and warmth coming through, water still, reflections like a mirror, golden glow waking up the day, a gentle lapping, bird song, this is my time
Extract from Arthur Rank Hospice participants

Image of the painting Sunrise in the Wengernalp, 1835, T, Fearnley, (1802-1842)
Sunrise in the Wengernalp, 1835, T, Fearnley, (1802-1842)

Let’s light a campfire, look up to the skies, tell stories and listen to the sounds of the night, we’re all together, we’re safe, the mountains slowly appear as the sun rises and the stars, fade, shhh there’s something out there …
Extract from sheltered housing residents

Whipple Museum, Globe Gallery

The mystical skies, the wonder, so beautiful and so unknown, I want to float upwards, I’m full of wonder and awe, I’m free, I’m relaxed, I’m peaceful, I’m back in my youth lying in Grantchester meadows, wrapped in the darkness of the night, looking, and listening, I’m overwhelmed, but somehow calm, the unfathomable, vast, puzzle of everything … I want to phone home
Extract from Litchfield Hall, Ditton and Rawlyn Court, Sheltered Housing participants

Group of seated older people raise one arm above their heads, copying the actions of a woman stood in front of them
Bringing it all together

To complete each session and bring experiences together in order to celebrate, consolidate and reflect and evaluate, participants are invited to contribute to a shared piece of reflection; an example of this process is the ‘one line each’ group poem:

I looked at the sky and …

I looked at the sky and …
I knew I was alive
I wished I could fly, be free, soar out of my body
I wondered how long each cloud might last …
And asked, what have they done with the sun? will the clouds never end?

I looked at the sky and …
I saw a storm coming, but knew the sun wouldn’t be far behind
I felt sad, I knew that hope was needed, a rollercoaster
I imagined jumping on clouds and leaving this body behind
I walked in the wind, the sun, the rain and later under the moon, the stars

I looked at the sky and …
I was amazed, mesmerised, and exhilarated, I was enlivened – I woke up!
I saw nature at its best
by residents at Mansel Court sheltered housing scheme and members of the Community Hub

Age Well is funded through a combination of grant funding from the Linbury Trust, Arts Council England and Cambridge City Council, and is the development of the Building Connections funded programme 2018-21.