It is well known that museums can have a significant positive impact on our quality of life. Art museums provide aesthetically pleasing environments for us to explore our identities. Science centers and natural history museums pique our curiosity, inspiring our quests for discovery. History museums offer portals to our shared past, allowing us to make sense of the present.
Not only do museums provide existential benefits, but they can also contribute to our wellbeing. In other words, a trip to the museum—like jogging or eating your vegetables—is a healthy choice.
The Arteffact Project undertook a study in 2012 to discover whether museums had a measurable positive effect on mental health. Their findings indicated that “creative activity in museums has a significant beneficial effect on the mental wellbeing of people suffering from mental distress and that the museum setting has contributed to this effect.” Participants described the museum environment as “inspirational and calming” and reported that “they experienced a connection to the human through interaction with the artifacts.”
It is vital that museums actively promote mental wellbeing and build upon studies like the one done by the Arteffact Project if they wish to fulfill their obligation to their communities.
Why Mental Health Matters
Mental health is something we all struggle with at one point or another, but a significant number of people battle mental illness on a daily basis. For the sake of brevity, this post will only focus on the two most common mental illnesses: anxiety and depression. The Center for Disease Control (CDC) defines an anxiety disorder as “characterized by excessive and unrealistic worry about everyday tasks or events, or may be specific to certain objects or rituals.” The CDC defines depression as “characterized by persistent sadness and sometimes irritability and is one of the leading causes of disease or injury worldwide for both men and women.” While depression and anxiety are two separate illnesses, they share overlapping symptoms as demonstrated by the accompanying chart from Anxiety.org. It is also not uncommon for one person to have both anxiety and depression—a condition known as comorbidity.
According to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH), anxiety disorders affect 18% of the American population (approximately 40 million people) and depression affects 6.7% of the population (approximately 16 million people). Based on these statistics, it is safe to assume that someone with one or both of these afflictions is bound to walk through the doors of a museum at some point in time—if not everyday. Museums should therefore be prepared to meet his or her needs.
It is crucial that we talk about these conditions as a society because they are both potentially life threatening. Both anxiety and depression carry a high risk of suicide, which is the tenth leading cause of death in the United States. While suicide is an uncomfortable topic, “evidence shows that providing support services, talking about suicide, reducing access to means of self-harm, and following up with loved ones are just some of the actions we can all take to help others” (National Suicide Prevention Lifeline). With proper training and preparation, museums and other social institutions are appropriate spaces to have these tough conversations.
How Museums Can Help
According to museum educator Lois Silverman, “Through their therapeutic potential, museums have a means to social inclusion of individuals who are often overlooked by cultural institutions.” She argues that museums assume a healthy visitor population and ignore museums’ potential to “improve and/or maintain healthy human functioning and well-being.” At the beginning of this post, I presented evidence that museums have a positive effect on mental health. It is therefore time for museums to take advantage of this inherent therapeutic potential by actively promoting a healthy mental state and reaching out to people suffering from mental illness.
In some ways, museums naturally meet this audience’s needs already. For instance, Silverman identifies four concepts related to the therapeutic role of museums. They are:
- Artifacts – Museums use artifacts to share stories and invoke memories. Artifacts can thus be used as tools for self-exploration and growth.
- Interpretive media – Museums use a variety of means to reach their audiences and interpret their collections, including personal and non-personal services. Personal services in particular allow for direct communication, thus building empathy and understanding.
- Social roles – Museums provide a multiplicity of roles for their guests to inhabit. For instance, a visitor could assume the role of volunteer, contributor, enthusiast, connoisseur, etc. These roles can help visitors with mental illnesses realize that their illness does not define them.
- Evaluation – Museums rely on constant ongoing evaluation in order to maintain the quality of their programs and exhibits. Through evaluation, we can better understand how museums are already providing therapeutic benefits to their visitors.
There are also several ways that museums can better serve this population. Museums can…
- Partner with mental health professionals and communities
- Require staff trainings about mental health and suicide prevention
- Create programs that encourage mindfulness and emotional wellbeing
- Create therapy-based programs
- Host lectures or lecture series about mental health
- Create outreach programs for mental health facilities
- Create safe and welcoming spaces
One of the most effective ways museums can address mental health is through programming. Examples of appropriate programming include:
Art therapy – Art therapy provides participants with a creative outlet to “explore their feelings, reconcile emotional conflicts, foster self-awareness, manage behavior and addictions, develop social skills, improve reality orientation, reduce anxiety, and increase self-esteem.” The Memphis Brooks Museum of Art’s Art Therapy Access Program partners with local organizations as well as a certified art therapist in order to “provide a supportive and creative environment for the participants to develop and explore their personal narratives through art-making and gallery discussions.”
Mindfulness Activities/Exercises – Mindfulness is defined as “a mental state achieved by focusing one’s awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one’s feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique.” The Rubin Museum of Art in New York hosts several series focused on mindfulness, such as Yoga Connections, Mindfulness Meditation, Breathe, and Awakening Practice. Awakening Practice, for example, explores Himalayan culture using guided meditation in the museum’s Shrine Room.
Reminiscence Therapy – Reminiscence therapy uses memory as a healing force, often calling upon objects to facilitate the act of remembrance. This form of therapy has proven to significantly reduce depression in people with dementia. The Lowewood Museum in England has a reminiscence therapy program called Memory Boxes, which is an outreach program that provides boxes containing memory-jogging objects to local care homes. The program helps “to reconnect a person with their identity and to improve communication, mood and overall wellbeing.”
Music Therapy – Music therapy uses music “to help people cultivate their physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual well-being.” The Explore Music Project Museum in Seattle has partnered with the Seattle Pacific University’s music therapy program in order to host music therapy camps for children with developmental disorders. The camps offer “opportunities for social engagement, enhanced awareness and appreciation of self and others, and creative expression through alternative communication styles of music-making.” While these camps were not intended for people with anxiety and depression, they meet both groups’ needs.
By accommodating the needs of visitors with anxiety and depression, museums not only become better institutions for those suffering from mental illness, they also become better institutions for everyone. Silverman writes, “Mental health is a common denominator, something all people need, and addressing it is a path to broader social inclusion by museums.” We can all benefit from a little self-care. When museums create opportunities for self-exploration and community building, they do more than just serve their visitors; they care for them.
If you or someone you know is contemplating suicide, consult the following resources immediately:
- 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
Resources and Further Reading:
- Mental Health
- Museums and Mental Health
- Lois Silverman, The Therapeutic Potential of Museums as Pathways to Inclusion (2003)
- Mental Health Programs