19 June 2020:


A team of Oxford researchers has won a grant from the University’s Covid-19 Research Response Fund to study the effects of online cultural experiences on mental health. Mental health and wellbeing is among the major public health concerns during the coronavirus pandemic.  Concurrently, engagement with digital culture including museum collections has been remarkable.  While it has long been known that non-clinical factors like participation in arts or sports is probably beneficial for people’s mental health, strong empirical evidence is lacking.  This new study will use the unique opportunity of lockdown and social distancing to gather new evidence.  The interdisciplinary research team is drawn from the University’s Department of Psychiatry and the Oxford Internet Institute who will pilot a study using the Ashmolean Museum’s digital collections and resources.  People are invited to contribute to the study online at

Faced with unmet demand for services, clinicians have increasingly looked for new means to augment mental health provision, for instance, the potential use of community assets like museums, galleries and gardens.  These unmet needs are likely to increase as a result of the pandemic and lockdown. During this time museums themselves have seen rising numbers of people using digital resources for entertainment, reflection and escape.  Since lockdown began, more than 2000 people have looked at the famous Alfred Jewel on the Ashmolean website.  In April 2020 visits to the Museum’s online collections increased by 101% on the previous year.  More than 20,000 people have seen the Young Rembrandt exhibition online.  17,000 people have taken selfies using the Ashmolean’s Instagram filters – putting themselves in front of museum objects and animations.  Feedback on social media has delighted the Communications team:

I’m loving the daily #IsolationCreations from the Ashmolean Museum. Each day’s “challenge” is the first thing I look for in the morning.

It’s wonderfully interactive “respond with your own creativity” to amazing pieces in their collection. It’s almost like standing in front of the piece in the museum live as a VIP, with others caring what that piece makes you feel.❤️

Thanks so much for creating this [Rembrandt video]. Sharing the museum this way is brightening my days so much right now.

The Online Active Community Engagement for Mental Health and Wellbeing (O-ACE) Study has been awarded £37,000 from the University’s Covid-19 Research Response Fund.  The study is intended to last 16 weeks and will evaluate existing online resources at the Ashmolean; recruit study participants from existing networks with a particular focus on groups vulnerable to mental health problems during the pandemic; and it will develop and test content using experimental medicine methodologies to assess impacts on mental health and wellbeing.  The testing and analyses will be supported by the infrastructure of the National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre.  The study aims to generate pilot data which the Oxford research team can use for longer-term enquiry and development.

Susan McCormack, Director of Public Engagement, Ashmolean Museum, says: ‘Access to museums and culture online has been a real tonic for people during the COVID-19 lockdown.  The Ashmolean has seen a huge increase in digital engagement.  Curiously interacting with our visitors online, especially through social media, has felt quite personal, even intimate.

‘Despite the clear appetite for online museum content we don’t fully understand the science behind the impact of digital engagement.  This project will help us gather evidence, improve what we do in the future, and provide new resources for mental health.’

Rebecca Syed Sheriff, Lead Researcher and Consultant Psychiatrist, says: ‘We are so excited to be pulling together and working with colleagues across disciplines at this time of need. This is an ideal time to explore engaging and innovative approaches to mental health using scientifically rigorous methodologies. As a doctor, I am looking forward to improving our collective armoury against distressing mental health problems like anxiety and depression.’

Professor John Geddes, Head of the Department of Psychiatry, says: ‘One positive aspect of this terrible pandemic is that colleagues in both clinical service and the University’s museums and libraries have responded creatively using digital technology to maintain, and even increase, engagement with the community.  The funding we have received will kick-start our evaluation of these innovations – which could be a really powerful way of helping people to manage mental health problems.’

Andy Przybylski of the Oxford Internet Institute says: ‘There are common perceptions that online technologies have a negative impact on both children and adults.  While evidence abounds that disputes this, we lack data on how internet-enabled experiences can actually benefit mental health.  I’m excited to see where this project goes and whether Oxford’s cultural resources, the internet, and rigorous scientific practices can be leveraged to shift the conversation and make a concrete difference in people’s lives worldwide.’

Professor Anne Trefethen, Pro-Vice Chancellor for Gardens, Libraries and Museums, University of Oxford, says: ‘I am delighted that the cultural institutions of the University and colleagues in the Department of Psychiatry, and the Oxford Internet Institute have come together to take forward this research.  We are aware that the institutions can provide support for wellbeing and good mental health but of course at this time there is only remote access to the collections which increases the need to understand better the benefits of engaging with cultural assets online.’




Claire Parris, Press Officer, Ashmolean Museum | 07833 384 512



Members of the public can participate in the study online at


Ashmolean Online
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Principle Investigators:

Rebecca Syed Sherriff graduated in Medicine from Balliol College, Oxford and is a Member of the Royal College of Psychiatrists (UK) and a Fellow of the Royal Australian and New Zealand College of Psychiatrists. She is Honarary Associate Professor at Nottingham University and was joint co-ordinating Editor of the Cochrane Schizophrenia group, widely recognised as summarising the best evidence in healthcare. She is on the Advisory Board for the Australian and New Zealand Journal of Psychiatry.  Rebecca has lived and worked across the globe in UK, Australia, New Zealand, Bosnia, Colombia and Thailand, and led a project to introduce formal mental health training of health professionals in Somaliland.  Currently she is a Consultant Psychiatrist at Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust and Senior Clinical Research Fellow at Oxford University, Department of Psychiatry.

John Geddes is Professor of Epidemiological Psychiatry and Head of the Department of Psychiatry, University of Oxford and Director of Research and Development for Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust.  His research focuses on the development and evaluation of treatments for people with bipolar and other mental disorders.  His team has established large cohorts of patients, developed new approaches to self-management and monitoring, and conducted clinical trials as well as influential research syntheses. By involving patients in research, they have been able to understand the nature of mood disorder more accurately and are increasingly using this knowledge to investigate the basic neurobiology and genetic mechanisms of the disorder.


The University of Oxford Covid-19 Research Response Fund was set up in April 2020 to fund research by the University's investigators in all areas of the global COVID-19 crisis. The fund is supported by philanthropic donations to the University that have been given for the purpose of promoting COVID-19 research.  The fund will support projects that:

  • intend to have high impact in the short to medium-term on the COVID-19 pandemic.
  • are expected to start rapidly and last no longer than 15 months.
  • will have a significant impact on human health or wellbeing, or improve understanding of COVID-19
  • are from any discipline and hosted by any department of the University.

Make a Gift
Funding for the University of Oxford’s coronavirus research is crucial to the development of a vaccine and the subsequent delivery of effective drugs to combat this new virus. Unprecedented speed, scope and ambition is required.  Please make a gift at  Any gift made will help contribute to the fight against coronavirus.


The University of Oxford Department of Psychiatry’s mission is to conduct world-class research, teach psychiatry to medical students, develop future researchers in a graduate programme, teach doctors in training, promote excellence in clinical practice, and develop and provide innovative clinical services. It supports research in four key areas: neurobiology, psychological treatments, developmental psychiatry and social psychiatry. The Department is committed to the translation of scientific discovery into benefits for patients.


The National Institute for Health Research (NIHR) Oxford Health Biomedical Research Centre is a partnership between the Oxford Health NHS Foundation Trust and the University of Oxford. It aims to bring the best science to the complex problems of mental health and dementia.


The Oxford Internet Institute is a multidisciplinary research and teaching department of the University of Oxford, dedicated to the social science of the internet.  Digital connections are now embedded in almost every aspect of our daily lives, and research on individual and collective behaviour online is crucial to understanding our social, economic and political world.