Hospital Rooms uses visual art to spark positive change in service users

10 October 2017

Hospital Rooms is an arts and mental health charity that believes in the “enduring power of the arts to instil value, dignity and wellbeing in people.” They work with mental health practitioners, service users and commission museum and gallery quality artists to create “site specific, inventive and compliant environments,” for predominantly secure and locked mental health units. They also run creative workshops for service users within said units.

Hospital Rooms was founded by artist Tim A Shaw and curator Niamh White after they visited a close friend on a mental health ward and found themselves struck by how cold, clinical and detached the unit was – not an environment that was encouraging recovery or better wellbeing. They approached the medical director of South West London & St George’s NHS Trust and pitched an idea for the Phoenix Unit – a secure, residential psychiatric unit for people with schizophrenia – that ended up being their first project. Since then they have completed a project at the SWLSTG Recovery College, and are currently working at Snowsfield Adolescent Mental Health Unit in Maudsley Hospital, South London and Maudsley NHS Foundation Trust and Garnet Ward at Highgate Mental Health Centre, Camden and Islington NHS Foundation Trust. We spoke to Tim and Niamh about their new project, being announced on It’s Nice That today, as well as the transformative quality of art on mental health.

Please tell us a bit more about your new project at Maudsley Hospital.

Our newest project will be taking place at Eileen Skellen 1, a Psychiatric Intensive Care Unit for women at Maudsley Hospital.

We are commissioning seven artists to participate in the project. They will each visit the unit a number of times to see the different communal spaces and meet with the service users and staff. Our co-production process is facilitated through a series of creative workshops with service users and more formal exchanges with staff. Each artwork and environment will be created in response to the information they gather in these sessions.

We have worked closely with the staff from the unit and the trust on making sure all the work is safe, suitable and compliant, but we try not to restrict any concepts or creativity – our artists tend to see these restrictions as exciting challenges. The artists include Harold Offeh, who often works in video and performance to explore communication across cultures; Nengi Omuku, a painter whose floating compositions consider difference, understanding and belonging; Aimee Mullins, an athlete, model and advocate for women who has collaborated with Matthew Barney, Alexander McQueen and Nick Knight (who was one of the artists on our first Hospital Rooms project that took place at Phoenix Unit); Paresha Amin, Tim A Shaw and Tamsin Relly. The project has been funded by Arts Council England. 

How does your project at Eileen Skellern 1, as well as your previous projects, create an environment that is supportive of good mental health?

Since our foundation less than two years ago, there has been a rising demand from mental health trusts across the country for Hospital Rooms to work with them. Mental health needs are complex, increasing and have continuing funding pressures.

The Care Quality Commission’s (CQC) recent State of care in mental health services report found that the physical environment of many mental health wards is inadequate. Existing older buildings are not designed to meet the needs of today’s acute patients. Our ambition is for mental health care to be valued in a radically different way, so that the physical environment of all mental health hospitals can actively improve health and wellbeing, rather than undermine it. Key outcomes of Hospital Rooms’ projects include a more therapeutic environment as well as better understanding of how physical environment impacts upon mental health.

The key outcomes for the people who are cared for and work in mental health hospitals with an improved physical environment include improved self esteem, quality of care and better relationships between service users and staff; increased opportunities to take part in creative activities; long-term participation in the arts and increased opportunities to respond creatively and emotionally to the physical environment.

Why is art, specifically, so powerful when it comes to achieving your goals?

At the heart of our approach is a belief in the power of visual art and the capacity of artists to make a positive change in the community. Central to this is enabling co-creation, mutual respect and engagement between artists and hospital communities. We bring artists who are known for their work for other audiences into mental health hospitals where opportunities to access and participate in the arts is severely reduced and believe that artists can interpret functional spaces in unique and meaningful ways. We seek to embed learning and participatory evaluation at the heart of our work, to inform innovation in arts and mental health practice, and contribute to new ways of thinking about mental health care. 

What is the process and timeline for a typical project?

Our projects are very involved and we tend to work with each unit for around one year in total. We meet with staff, bring each artist to site, oversee the idea development, and then facilitate the installation of each artwork. After the installations are complete, we run art workshops with service users that relate to the artwork that has been created to encourage conversation about them, and to encourage creative activity. 

In the beginning, we were asking trusts if they would like to work with us, but now that we have established a track record, we have been inundated with requests from mental health trusts. We now have a waiting list, which we are gradually working through. 


Tim A Shaw: Communal Dining Room 3, Phoenix Unit, Toni Hollowood


Tim A Shaw: Communal Dining Room 1, Phoenix Unit, Toni Hollowood


Sophie Clements: Games Room 1, Phoenix Unit, Toni Hollowood


Tim A Shaw: Recovery College


Mark Power and Jo Coles: Relatives Room 2, Phoenix Unit, Toni Hollowood


Gavin Turk: Resource Room 2, Phoenix Unit, Toni Hollowood


Assemble: Hallway Noticeboard 3, Phoenix Unit, Toni Hollowood

1 in 4 people in the UK experience a mental health problem every year, and in England, 1 in every 6 people report a common mental health problem – like anxiety and depression – each week. But only 1 in 4 people in the UK reporting mental health difficulties receive ongoing treatment. If you have been affected by any of the issues discussed in today’s coverage, if you would like to find out more or to donate, please contact Mind or CALM.

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About the Author

Ruby Boddington

Ruby joined the It’s Nice That team as an editorial assistant in September 2017 after graduating from the Graphic Communication Design course at Central Saint Martins. In April 2018, she became a staff writer and in August 2019, she was made associate editor.

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