Making It: Taking the NGA's dementia arts program out of Canberra

Written by Hon Boey
Published on 23 January 2024

About the author

Hon is an art director of 10+ years and a frontend developer of 5+ years. He is also a Principal at the Interaction Consortium.

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In 2014, Le Pére (The Father) won the 2014 Molière Award for Best Play – France’s highest theatre honour. It is an astonishing work, taking the audience into what The Guardian describes as “a savagely honest study of dementia”.

I’ve been fortunate enough to experience Le Pére in two different incarnations. The first was in 2017 at Sydney Theatre Company’s adaptation starring John Bell as the titular character. The second was three years later in the film adaptation that saw Anthony Hopkins win the Oscar for Best Actor. Both productions are amazing examples of how art can expose our vulnerability and empathy. It is a truly remarkable deep understanding of the human condition.

What's going on here? I don't … um … I can't work this out. Am I losing my mind?

I must confess when I started to read the play, I was baffled by it. Was it a weird kind of thriller? Or was it an exercise in absurdity? But once I cottoned on to the ingenious device by which the playwright allows us into the mind of André, I was bowled over by it. Florian Zeller's play is by turn challenging, funny, poignant, full of surprises and tenderness.

I greatly look forward to working with director Damien Ryan and a strong cast – Anita Hegh, Marco Chiappi and Natasha Herbert – on this astonishing, award-winning play

30 years ago, I don’t think such a work could have been written. Our understanding of dementia, the ways it affects both the person living with it and those that are in that person’s lives were so much less understood. But now, Le Pére resonates with so many.

As of 2024, nearly half a million Australians live with dementia. It is the second leading cause of death in Australia and provisional data shows that it will shortly become our leading cause of death. Without a significant medical breakthrough, 812,000 Australians will have dementia by 2054. Every one of us has or will be touched by dementia whether it be in our families, friends or workplaces.

Since 2007, 7 years before Le Pére was staged, the National Gallery of Australia has been on the forefront of non-pharmaceutical treatment for people living with dementia. Under the guidance of Adrienne Boag, the Gallery started a series of art based workshops called Making It. It is an extraordinary project, based on the now widely influential research conducted by Sarah MacPherson, clinical psychologist Dr Mike Bird et al at the Australian National University. It was through these workshops that people living with dementia had the “opportunity for intellectual stimulation, creative engagement, social interaction, and personal reflection” (Camic et al., 2016; Cavalcanti Barroso et al., 2022; D'Cunha et al., 2020; Ullán et al., 2013)

These workshops take on two dimensions:

  1. Group conversations, involving viewing and discussing paintings, photographs, sculptures, textiles and other objects found in the Gallery
  2. Art-making sessions, inspired by the works that they have discussed. Such pieces can include painting, drawing, working with clay and story building

When you think about it, the Gallery is an obvious location for the program. You are surrounded by works with a seemingly endless variety of pieces to discuss. Connections between pieces can be made which further enhances insights and stimulation.

Another characteristic that distinguishes these programs from other art interventions is that these sessions are conducted with gallery or museum staff who are experts in their field. Combined with dementia-specific training the staff are an invaluable resource to those with dementia.

However, having these workshops in the Gallery causes large access issues, whether it be geographical, mobility or staff availability. For this to be a national program it was necessary to bring it to them – into their homes, residential aged care facilities or local art spaces. This was further compounded by COVID 19.

A trip to Canberra revealed a lot.

Participants in the Making It art workshop hosted by the National Gallery of Australia

Participating in a Making It workshop

To ensure that the online platform was a true reflection of the in-person program's success, it was essential we understood the unique needs and challenges faced by people with dementia and their caregivers.

The team visited Canberra to observe the in-person workshops, speaking directly to participants and their caregivers. This firsthand experience was invaluable in gaining insight into the nuances of the program, helping them understand the intricacies that would need to be preserved and translated into the digital realm. The expertise of Adrienne and Harriet, the co-coordinators and facilitators of the project, was invaluable in guiding the team toward the right direction.

What we discovered

Our trip to Canberra revealed insights that ranged from the mundane (resolution rendering on the Gallery’s laptops) through to the profound.

We quickly learnt that people living with dementia often have difficulty with context – requiring the audience to remember previous steps or to suggest future steps would be detrimental to their enjoyment. Because of this, the information presented had to be self-contained. Each step of the workshops was there compatmetalised into self-explanatory screens, each focusing on a single activity that didn't require prior or future context.

The user interface was designed to be intuitive, featuring a constant menu that allowed participants to easily navigate between these steps. The workshops were thoughtfully separated from the main site to prevent distractions and minimize the chance of users accidentally leaving the workshop. This ensured that participants could remain fully engaged and in the moment throughout the creative process.

We had also underestimated the role carers played in translating the screen to the workshop participant. It was obvious that the site had to speak both the carer and the person living with dementia. We therefore introduced a “Tips” step to introduce each workshop and gives the care giver some helpful information in guiding their loved one through the workshop. Each step also has a “More info” button that gives advice on how to guide the participant through that stage.

Moreover, recognizing that the platform needed to be accessible on a range of devices, we implemented fluid type – a way of having the type size scale automatically based on the size of the screen. This feature ensured that whether participants were using a tablet or a large screen in a group workshop, the content remained clear and easy to read.

screenshots of making it website

Making It launched during 2023's Dementia Awareness Week – a fitting time for such an incredible project. Thank you to the NGA and especially Adrienne and Harriet for inviting us to be involved.

End of article.
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