The need for museum programs for people with dementia and their caregivers

By Heather King - March 2011


Rhoads, L. (2009). Museums, meaning making and memories: The need for museum programs for people with dementia and their caregivers. Curator: The Museum Journal52(3), 229–240.

In this paper, Rhoads argues that exposure to museum resources and exhibitions can greatly benefit people with dementia—that is, those suffering the loss or decline of memory and other cognitive abilities. She calls for museums to think beyond their current offerings and develop tailored programs for people with dementia and their caregivers.

Rhoads notes that audiences with dementia may welcome the opportunity to reminisce with the aid of collections, artifacts, and gallery visits. Furthermore, she notes that "museums can act as a conduit for social interaction, providing links among people with dementia, their loved ones and caregivers, and museum resources" (page 230). As such, museums and similar settings may contribute to a program of nonpharmacological care, an important approach given that, on average, drugs only work for 6–12 months and then only work in half the individuals for whom they are prescribed.

Some institutions have already developed tailored tours, workshops, and discussion activities for people with dementia. In a study of one such program at MOMA (Museum of Modern Art) in New York City, caregivers reported that their loved ones with dementia "experienced an increased sense of self, sense of identity, feelings of confidence, and feelings of worth as a result of the program" (page 233). Caregivers too reported gaining valuable respite and opportunity for some positive moments when negative moments were all too common.

Given that one in five American women and one in seven American men who live to age 55 will eventually develop some form of dementia, Rhoads is essentially arguing that museums ought to begin developing appropriate programs now. She also notes that the usual measures for educational outcomes when working with this audience will have to be rethought, and quotes Gasgoine (2008, 45) who has stated that "success is measured in little moments of enlightenment."


Gascoigne, L. (2008). Thought provoking. Museums Association. Museum Practice 41: 42–45. Accessed at