Life happens. Sometimes we are up and sometimes we are down; it’s just the way the cookie crumbles sometimes. However, there are many people who go through life with an extra burden of anxiety and/or depression holding them back from some of life’s joys. Museums can be places where people suffering with these conditions can find therapeutic possibilities that may lift their burdens, even if just for a little bit.
Psychotherapy is a process whereby psychological problems are treated through communication and relationship factors between an individual and a trained mental health professional. (https://psychcentral.com/lib/what-is-psychotherapy/) There are many varieties of therapeutic techniques that can assist in this process. Cognitive behavioral therapy, dialectical behavioral therapy, play therapy, and art therapy are a few of the methods that could be successfully used in museums. Art therapy is one of the most popular, and a very effective, method that is used in museums and in museum partnerships, but the other types of therapy could be used as effectively in museums.
Museums as a safe space
One aspect that makes visitor’s dealing with anxiety and depression comfortable in a museum is that a museum is seen as a safe space. It stands to reason that if the objects and artifacts are safe and being taken care of in this space, the visitor is being protected too. There is also a general code of good behavior that people follow at a museum. This creates a space that is seen as controlled and safe, which is very beneficial to anyone that is seeking a therapeutic experience at a museum. That feeling of being safe also lends itself to a contemplative and spiritual experience at the museum. Meditation or deep personal thought can be a result of such a feeling allowing for healing and understanding.
Museum connect us with personal experiences
Visitor’s seeking the therapeutic potential of museums may use the experience to connect with their personal feelings and experiences. Facilitating the individuals experience is the common objective of therapy and can be easily accessed by museum objects. In a museum, visitors are encouraged to take the room they need to have personal interpretation of the exhibits and objects they see and they are encouraged to get in touch with their internal and external realities.
Museums to acknowledge and manage emotions
Museums can also model ways for us to acknowledge and manage a wide range of emotions. They offer a space to display human experiences and interpretation through artistic form or historical objects. They care for the interpretation with respect, just like museums should care for each of their visitors. Museums are a place to step back and objectively observe what you are experiencing and feeling. This can lead to therapeutic breakthroughs that may not happen otherwise.
There are special programs that some museums do that focus on therapeutic outcomes for their visitors. Programs focus on particular audiences dealing with different aspects of anxiety and depression that could benefit from museum’s therapeutic potential. The Manchester Museum in England has a program that works with unemployed adults and trains them to be volunteer museum staff on the floor. This program gives the people agency and a purpose. It also fosters a sense of pride and connection with the objects in the collection. It has been shown to combat depression and anxiety with lasting effects. The Boston Museum of Modern Art as well as the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City have programs that work with visitor’s with Alzheimer’s. MoMA also works with FreeArt NYC to work with children who have suffered from abuse.
Important things to remember
Museum educators can provide a lot of therapeutic structure in the interpretation we give, the questions we ask, and how we interact with the visitors. We can give them the tools they need to reflect and process the information. However, it is important to work with a mental health care professional when designing programs targeting a special audience. It will give you the proper tools and best practices to work with those visitors dealing with anxiety and depression. The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, CT developed a program called Stigmas, Stereotypes and Solutions, which addressed issues of mental health. Their program had two mental health professionals on the panel to handle such delicate subject matter.
Museums as a therapeutic environment
Museums offer a safe space that allows for a person to be as connected or unconnected as they choose. This choice is so important for visitors dealing with anxiety and depression issues. Though we may not know what our visitors are dealing with internally, if we give them the space and the tools to fully interact with their environment, museums should be a useful tool in providing therapy to those who suffer.
“Therapeutic Potential of a Museum Visit” by Andrée Salom
The Therapeutic potential of museums as pathways to inclusion by Lois H. Silverman (Excerpt from Chapter 5 of book)
Lois Silverman – Social Works of Museums