A Medium for Memories: How Duke’s Nasher Museum Uses Art to Help People with Dementia

December 13, 2022
Science Magazine

All images courtesy of the Nasher Museum of Art.

Though it’s dubbed America’s favorite pastime, baseball is a sport that can elicit mixed emotions. Some are drawn back to drowsy summer evenings, cheering crowds, and the permeating smell of buttery popcorn. Others look on baseball with… less fondness. I fall into the latter camp. To this day, I'm still not quite sure how all the positions work, or why the games seem to take seven hours, or what Cracker Jack is actually made of. 

But in a brightly lit room in the Nasher Museum of Art, surrounded by pictures of baseball legends of the past, I found a way to appreciate the game in a way that I never had before. 

The Nasher is home to an impressive array of pieces and installations, but it also hosts the Reflections tour — a series of guided tours for those struggling with early and mid-stage Alzheimer’s disease and dementia. Inspired by the “Meet Me at MoMA” model from the museum in New York, the Nasher’s program began in 2014 and has attracted visitors from the Durham community and beyond. 

I had the opportunity to observe a Nasher Reflections tour and witness how visitors interacted with some of the works in the museum. 

It was at the first installation — David Leventhal’s collection of giant polaroids of famous baseball players — that I began to appreciate how special this program truly is. 

Visitors who had initially seemed reserved and quiet positively lit up with enthusiasm, pointing out players and scenes that they recognized. A passionate baseball fan became particularly animated when he recognized the 1956 World Series game, where Don Larsen threw a perfect game against the Brooklyn Dodgers. 

That moment was, in short, incredible. Was I confused about what a “perfect” game actually meant? Yes. But was I utterly moved by the clear passion and excitement emanating from the visitors? Also yes. 

Their descriptions and connections to the pieces of art were crystal clear. Those reflections served as windows into people’s past — endless stories filled with nostalgia and fun. More importantly, however, they served as a way to build community and social bonds. Duke Alumni Sujal Manohar published a study of the Nasher Reflections tour and emphasized how it fostered “intergenerational and intragenerational connections.” For people with dementia who may feel increasing distance from the world around them, these connections are critical. 

Director of Marketing, Wendy Hower, described how the museum designs different elements of the Reflections tour to engage each of the senses. Sounds of baseball games echo in the room where a massive figurine of Babe Ruth stands. Visitors passed around the rough, scratchy leather of a baseball mitt during our discussion.

I think museumgoers sometimes mistakenly assume that you have to find the ‘right answer’ or hidden meaning in art by digging into hidden details on the canvas. But fundamentally, reflecting on art simply means paying attention to your immediate, present reaction to the work in front of you. What are you feeling? What are you seeing? What are you thinking? 

That kind of thinking can be therapeutic for people with neurodegenerative illness, according to a 2014 qualitative research study from the University of Pittsburgh that examined the experience of older adults with early-stage Alzheimer’s in a museum setting. It found that patients experienced cognitive stimulation, social connection, and reinforcement of self-esteem through these experiences. 

On a cellular level, though, scientists are still investigating how these experiences could improve neurological health. In a 2012 study, researchers Catherine Eekelaar, Paul M. Camic, and Neil Springham observed increased neuron activity in the brain when viewing art and hypothesized that certain brain regions may be “awakened” during that experience. Prior research about artists with dementia has shown that creativity and artistic expression remain intact longer than other cognitive functions. But the field is far from identifying a conclusive reason as to why viewing art is so powerful and helpful. 

The Reflections tour offers benefits for caregivers as well. Not only do they get to see their loved ones animated and interacting with art, but they also can find a sense of relief in simply being present. For at least a brief second, you are not worrying about appointments or to-dos. You can simply enjoy the art in front of you. 

Indeed, that seems to be the foundation of this Reflections tour. Ms. Hower characterized the power of the program as one that fosters a sense of “being in the moment,” which is especially helpful for those with dementia.  

“And in the moment,” she continued, “you’re not really asked about your memories. And in the moment, you’re safe.”

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