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Researcher Spotlight - Dr Robyn Dowlen

Updated: May 20

As part of our Researcher Spotlight Series, we spoke to Dr Robyn Dowlen from Centre for Cultural Value about her work scoping and synthesizing literature under their Culture, Health, Wellbeing theme.


How did you first become interested in the role creativity can play in our wellbeing?


Robyn: I don’t know whether I can pinpoint a specific time but I have always had a passion for music. In secondary school, music took up most of my spare time. Monday was singing lessons, Tuesdays string orchestra, Wednesdays choir rehearsals, Thursdays violin lessons and Fridays were school musical rehearsals. Music provided me with a platform to express myself, make friends and probably got me where I am today.


My interest really peaked though when I volunteered with Manchester Camerata’s Songlines project - a music and creative arts programme for children with autism and their peers. I was blown away by the power that creativity had for those young people, enabling them to really come out of their shells and create something quite magical. The relationship I developed with Manchester Camerata gave me the confidence to apply for a PhD, which they supported. The PhD focussed on the ‘in the moment’ experiences of people living with dementia when they engage with music.


What is the focus of your research?


Robyn: I am a researcher at the Centre for Cultural Value, and my role is in scoping and synthesising literature that falls under this very broad umbrella of cultural value. I have spent the past 18 months looking at research that falls within the culture, health and wellbeing sphere. We’ve published reviews of the academic literature in areas such as culture on referral (which is also known as arts on prescription) and on the value of culture for the training and development of healthcare students, which were both fascinating topics areas. I’ve also been looking into culture and young people’s mental health and older people’s physical health. We’re starting to move into our cultural participation theme, which will explore topics such as older people’s cultural participation and everyday creativity.


Why is this research area important?


Robyn: At the Centre we are building a shared understanding of the differences that arts, culture, heritage and screen make to people’s lives and to society. Essentially, we want cultural policy and practice to be based on rigorous research of what works and what needs to change. This means that the research I do has to be objective, so that we can showcase the evidence there is but also identify where there are gaps. By reviewing, synthesising and appraising research in specific topic areas, we can begin to make recommendations as to how research can be strengthened to afford more sustainable, equitable approaches for those taking part.


What are the key findings emerging from your research?


Robyn: It’s hard to sum up our key findings in a few words! However, we are seeing some patterns across the research themes:

  1. There are a lot of pilot programmes but little research into how we can sustain cultural programmes aimed at addressing health and wellbeing.

  2. There is a real lack of focus on the artistic and creative process, with the scale being firmly dipped in the direction of outcome.

  3. There is an apparent lack of diversity in the people who are represented in the literature. This makes us question how we can make culture, health and wellbeing practice and research more inclusive.

  4. A lot of the research is lacking rigour. We really need to push for more high-quality research that will really help to strengthen the evidence base in this area.

As well as our research digests that summarise these topic areas, I also host a podcast, Reflecting Value, which reflects on some of these big questions. I would encourage anyone interested in these topics to have a listen.


How do you use creativity to support your own wellbeing?


Robyn: Well, there’s nothing I enjoy more than singing along to some of my favourite musical soundtracks when I’ve had a tough day. To put it in perspective, my top ten songs from 2020 consisted of songs from Hamilton and Waitress with a bit of Lizzo thrown in for balance. My mum also sent me a massive cross-stitch pattern during lockdown 1 and over a year later I am so nearly finished... It says ‘Think Happy Thoughts’ which I think is quite fitting!


Creativity and Wellbeing week is a yearly festival run by London Arts in Health and the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance . Their aim is to encourage everyone to try out arts and health activities via showcasing some of the fantastic projects in the UK that are available. Find out more about the week here.

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