The O-ACE Project

About the O-ACE project

Mental health and wellbeing are among the major public health concerns of the COVID-19 pandemic, and increasing pressure on healthcare services demands sustainable alternatives to clinical methods of targeting mental health. These alternatives can include museums and cultural community assets (libraries, gardens, heritage sites), though strong empirical evidence of how such assets benefit mental health has been lacking. The extraordinary period of 2020-21 witnessed government-enforced ‘lockdowns’, the closure of museums and galleries all around the world, and the rapid pivot to online consumption across all industries. These circumstances afforded a unique opportunity for researchers at Oxford to investigate the impact and effectiveness specifically of online cultural resources for mental health and wellbeing.

This project harnesses world leading expertise in psychiatry, internet research and cultural organisations, with an interdisciplinary research team led by the University’s Department of Psychiatry, the Oxford Internet Institute and the Gardens, Libraries and Museums division. The material used in the development and testing phase of the project draws heavily on the internationally important collections of the Ashmolean Museum.

O-ACE Research aims 

This project set out to advance collective knowledge around the use, benefits, and optimisation of online cultural content for mental health. The specific objectives were:

  1. To conduct a rapid, systematic literature review of cultural content on mental health and wellbeing;
  2. To evaluate the type, benefits and audiences of online cultural content on offer;
  3. To engage research participants throughout the project, with a particular focus on those vulnerable to mental health problems during the pandemic;
  4. To develop and test content using experimental medicine methodologies to assess the neural mechanisms of action and measure impacts on mental health and wellbeing;
  5. To generate pilot data that can be used for longer-term enquiry and development.

O-ACE Research methods

The project was grounded in rigorous qualitative and quantitative methodologies enacted over several phases, each informing the next. As this project was conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic all research was remote. For example, surveys were distributed and completed online, and focus groups took place via video-conferencing software. The findings from Phase 1 shaped the focus for phase 2, namely to create a testable online intervention with and for young people aged 16-24.

Research methods
  Description   Reach
Phase 1

Rapid systematic literature review of online cultural content on mental health and wellbeing

  13,000 studies
Global case studies of online cultural content   10 studies 
Online baseline survey to gain an understanding of the use of online culture and potential mental health benefits, socio-demographic characteristics and self-reported health status.   1056 people
Follow-on qualitative survey to help identify neural mechanisms of action ('core components').   176 people
1-2-1 interviews with respondents who fit target criteria.   13 people
Phase 2 Focus groups with young adults to co-produce an online cultural intervention   31 people
Medical experiment (randomised control trial) to test and measure the intervention against a standard museum website experience.   463 people

O-ACE Activities and Findings

This short video summarises the approaches to the research and the co-production process beind the creation of the online cultural intervention, 'Ways of Being'.


O-ACE project - optimising online cultural content for mental health


The Ways of Being intervention was a web tool that asked users to login so we could track their behaviour and also submit viewpoints that could be proactively added to the tool for other users to access. This video provides a walkthrough experience of using Ways of Being, demonstrating the content but also the specific features which respond to requirements outlined in the research and which differentiate it from many 'standard' museum websites. 


Ways of Being - walkthrough

O-ACE Project funders

  • COVID-19 Research Response Fund
  • Westminster Foundation
  • Huo Family Foundation

O-ACE Project dates

June 2020-Jun 2021

O-ACE Outputs


Syed Sheriff, R., Adams, H., Riga, E., Przybylski, A., Bonsaver, L., Bergin, L., . . . Geddes, J. (2021). Use of online cultural content for mental health and well-being during COVID-19 restrictions: Cross-sectional survey. BJPsych Bulletin, 1-10. doi:10.1192/bjb.2021.103

[PREPRINT] Syed Sheriff, Rebecca and Vuorre, Matti and Riga, Evgenia and Przybylski, Andrew and Adams, Helen and Harmer, Catherine J. and Geddes, John, An Online Cultural Experience for Mental Health in People Aged 16-24 Compared to a Typical Museum Website: A Randomised Controlled Trial. Available at SSRN: or

Adams, Helen, Sheriff, Rebecca and Cooper-Hammond, Clare. "Optimising online cultural content to positively impact mental health in young people." MW21: MW 2021. Published January 30, 2021. Access this item


MuseWeb 2021 (MW21) conference, January 2021

Kids in Museums conference, 'The future of youth and family engagement in museums', May 2021

Centre for the Creative Brain - University of Oxford, Cultural Experiences and Mental Health seminar programme, May 2021

British Library conference, 'Open and Engaged', November 2021 

University Museum Group AGM, November 2021

Links to further information