Researchers have launched a pilot project using the Ashmolean Museum’s digital collections and resources. You can take part in the study online at bit.ly/oxford-oace-study.

Mental health and wellbeing has become a serious concern during the coronavirus pandemic. At the same time, engagement with digital culture, including museum collections, has been at unprecedented levels. Since lockdown began, more than 2000 people have looked at the famous Alfred Jewel on the Ashmolean website. In April 2020 visits to the museum’s online collections increased by 101% on the previous year.  More than 20,000 people have seen the Young Rembrandt exhibition online.

There is a growing understanding that non-clinical factors, like participation in culture, arts or sports, may benefit mental health, however there is not yet a strong evidence base for this. The Online Active Community Engagement for Mental Health and Wellbeing (O-ACE) study will use the unique opportunity of lockdown and social distancing to explore the mental health benefits of online cultural experiences.

The study team is drawn from the University’s Department of Psychiatry and the Oxford Internet Institute and will be supported by the infrastructure of the NIHR Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre. The project has been awarded £37,000 from the University of Oxford Covid-19 Research Response Fund and is intended to last 16 weeks.  It will evaluate existing online resources at the Ashmolean; recruit study participants from existing networks with a particular focus on groups vulnerable to mental health problems during the pandemic; and it will develop and test content using experimental medicine methodologies to assess impacts on mental health and wellbeing.

Rebecca Syed Sheriff, Lead Researcher and Consultant Psychiatrist, says: ‘We are so excited to be pulling together and working with colleagues across disciplines at this time of need. This is an ideal time to explore engaging and innovative approaches to mental health using scientifically rigorous methodologies. As a doctor, I am looking forward to improving our collective armoury against distressing mental health problems like anxiety and depression.’

Professor John Geddes, Head of the Department of Psychiatry and Director of the Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre, says: ‘One positive aspect of this terrible pandemic is that colleagues in both clinical service and the University’s museums and libraries have responded creatively using digital technology to maintain, and even increase, engagement with the community.  The funding we have received will kick-start our evaluation of these innovations – which could be a really powerful way of helping people to manage mental health problems.’

Susan McCormack, Director of Public Engagement, Ashmolean Museum, says: ‘Access to museums and culture online has been a real tonic for people during the COVID-19 lockdown.  The Ashmolean has seen a huge increase in digital engagement.  Curiously interacting with our visitors online, especially through social media, has felt quite personal, even intimate.

‘Despite the clear appetite for online museum content we don’t fully understand the impact digital engagement has.  This project will help us gather evidence, improve what we do in the future, and provide new resources for mental health.’

Andy Przybylski of the Oxford Internet Institute says: ‘There are common perceptions that online technologies have a negative impact on both children and adults.  While evidence abounds that disputes this, we lack data on how internet-enabled experiences can actually benefit mental health.  I’m excited to see where this project goes and whether Oxford’s cultural resources, the internet, and rigorous scientific practices can be leveraged to shift the conversation and make a concrete difference in people’s lives worldwide.’