Can gardens, libraries and museums improve wellbeing through social prescribing?

March 12, 2020

Turk A, Mahtani KR, Tierney S, Shaw L, Webster E, Meacock T, Roberts N. (2020) The full PDF report can be found here.

Oxford University’s world-class gardens, libraries and museums could benefit the health and wellbeing of Oxfordshire residents through “social prescribing”, according to a report published today by an interdisciplinary team at Oxford University.

The report, entitled “Can gardens, libraries and museums improve wellbeing through social prescribing?”, brings together the experience and expertise of health researchers in the University’s Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (CEBM), general practitioners, heritage sector specialists in the University’s Gardens, Libraries and Museums (GLAM), and members of the public.

Based on a 12-month research project, the report explores how gardens, libraries and museums could contribute to health and wellbeing through “social prescribing”, which is a key part of the NHS Long Term Plan and delivery of Universal Personalised Care.

Social prescribing takes a more holistic approach to health by enabling GPs, nurses and other primary care workers to refer a patient to community-based groups or services that can offer practical, social or emotional support. The report shows that these environments can support health and wellbeing by helping people learn new things, develop new skills, make social connections and gain a greater sense of structure and purpose.

The research identified three key concepts that underpin the potential of garden, library and museum activities for improving health.

The first is that cultural venues can be seen as “therapeutic landscapes” – spaces that are conducive to healing and which serve as the location for social networks and therapeutic activity.

The second is that engaging in these activities “creates a sense of flow”, which is a state in which people get so involved in an activity that nothing else seems to matter. This “flow” helps individuals concentrate on the activity at hand, meaning that other concerns and worries are forgotten.

Finally, garden, library and museum activities “draw on social capital” through encouraging socialising and the building of social networks and reciprocal relationships, which can in turn contribute to positive health and wellbeing.

“Working with the GLAM team, we wanted to explore how these community-based ‘assets’, the gardens, libraries and museums, could help to improve people’s wellbeing,” said Amadea Turk, researcher with the CEBM, who collated the report. “But we also wanted to identify where there were gaps in the evidence and how we could work together to ensure we’re doing the right things in sustainable ways that will really help people.”

The research team engaged with members of the public and the report includes case studies of how these environments have benefited individuals. “We, like many other arts and cultural organisations, recognise our spaces have an important role to play in people’s health and wellbeing,” said Lucy Shaw, Director of Programmes and Partnerships in GLAM. “This report is a pioneering step towards an integrated, effective and sustainable social prescribing offering for the University’s gardens, libraries and museums – one that is tailored to the needs of the people of Oxfordshire.”

“A social prescription is not necessarily a replacement for medication – where needed – but it allows us to acknowledge that health and wellbeing can be more complex than ‘just’ a biological illness,” explained Dr Kamal Mahtani, Associate Professor and Deputy Director of the CEBM, and a practising Oxfordshire GP. “There’s a range of social, environmental and economic factors that can affect someone’s health and wellbeing – things like stress or anxiety caused by financial hardship, or depression linked to social isolation. A social prescription might help facilitate a patient towards other help and support, for example, Citizens Advice or activity groups at local venues, including public gardens, museums and libraries.”

In researching this report, the CEBM and GLAM teams have also developed an interdisciplinary Social Prescribing Research Network to ensure that this intervention has a growing and robust evidence base. The report urges others to join them in support of this cause.

In the words of the Rt Hon. Lord Howarth of Newport CBE, Co-Chair of the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Arts, Health and Wellbeing: “The passion and enthusiasm with which this report has been written ensure that it is elevated beyond a simple exchange of ideas, to a catalyst to inspire and motivate further the social prescribing movement.”


The full PDF report can be found here.

Cite the report as: Turk A, Mahtani KR, Tierney S, Shaw L, Webster E, Meacock T, Roberts N. Can gardens, libraries and museums improve wellbeing through social prescribing? A digest of current knowledge and engagement activities. (2020)

Available for contact:

Notes to editors

This work was supported by a Knowledge Exchange Seed Fund grant from the University of Oxford, and the NIHR School for Primary Care Research Evidence Synthesis Working Group. The views and findings represent those of the authors and not necessarily those of the sponsors.

More information about the work can be found at:


Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (CEBM)

The Centre for Evidence-Based Medicine (CEBM) was established in Oxford in 1995, and is a world leading centre of excellence dedicated to promoting evidence-based health care across the globe. The CEBM is part of the Nuffield Department of Primary Care Health Sciences at the University of Oxford, and provides support and resources to members of the public, clinicians, teachers and others to support healthcare decision making that has been informed by the best available evidence.

The CEBM, and works with the University’s Continuing Education Department to provide world-leading courses in evidence-based healthcare. The Centre also works with various partners to provide international conferences including “Preventing Overdiagnosis” and “EBMLive”.

There are over 25 active staff and honorary members of CEBM. Staff include clinicians, epidemiologists, information specialists, qualitative and quantitative researchers, and statisticians, all of whom work closely with evidence users.

The CEBM is a not-for-profit organisation.

For more information about the CEBM

Oxford University’s gardens, libraries and museums

Oxford University’s gardens, libraries and museums house some of the world’s most significant collections, covering the breadth and depth of the natural world, global art and artefacts. The four museums – the Ashmolean, History of Science, Natural History and Pitt Rivers – together with the Bodleian Libraries and Oxford Botanic Garden serve as the front door to the wealth of knowledge and research generated at Oxford.

The four museums are home to over 8.5 million objects and specimens representing the natural world, global art and artefacts: the Ashmolean is the first public museum in Britain and its collections include the most important group of Raphael drawings in the world; the History of Science Museum – housed in the world’s oldest surviving purpose-built museum building – contains the world’s finest collection of historic scientific instruments; the Museum of Natural History holds the University’s internationally significant collections of 7 million geological and zoological specimens, including the fossil bones of the first dinosaur ever to be described scientifically; and the Pitt Rivers houses one of the world’s finest collections of anthropology and archaeology, with objects from every continent and from throughout human history.

The Bodleian is one of the oldest libraries in Europe and, with over 13 million printed items, is second only in size to the British Library in Britain. The Botanic Garden is the oldest botanic garden in Britain and forms the most compact yet diverse collection of plants in the world.

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