Lots of things help mental health. Going for a walk, hanging out with animals, but… museums? From Belgium to Brisbane to Montreal, research is mounting that museums and art galleries are just the thing to give you a healing lift.
Beyond just being places of learning, and tourist attractions, it appears that museums and art galleries are ‘restorative’ environments. Like wild places, these entirely human-made of locations are capable of boosting mental and physical well-being.
An in-depth review of the evidence by the World Health Organisation came to the conclusion that the arts can play a major role in the promotion of health.
Now, in the wake of the COVID-19 accelerated international mental health crisis, doctors in Brussels are prescribing free museum visits to assist with stress, anxiety and depression.
Laughing at death
Dr Vincent Lustygier is a psychiatrist at the Brugmann University Hospital in Brussels. ‘The arts help all human being forget we are mortal beings,’ he said.
‘Through the arts, we laugh at death.’
Dr Lustygier was inspired partially by Canadian research which found gallery and museum visits could offer a serotonin mood boost and distract people suffering from chronic pain, amongst other benefits.
In conjunction with local doctors, Quebec’s Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has been helping people suffering from a range of ailments since 2018. Museum director Nathalie Bondil, said ‘What we see is that the fact that you are in contact with culture, with art, can really help your well-being.’
As well as helping with mental health, proponents says this kind of therapy can assist people with diabetes and other chronic illnesses, as well as those undergoing palliative care for severe life-threatening diseases.
The museum says it’s found that the resulting uptick in hormones is similar to that offered by exercise.
But this kind of boost is also available to elderly people and those disabled by illness or infirmity, as long as the cost is not prohibitive. That’s where the prescriptions come in.
Oi oi oi
Although doctors in Australia can’t yet prescribe museum and gallery visits for mental and physical gear shifting, researcher Jan Packer at the University of Queensland has found that the four essential elements of this form of art therapy are:
- Fascination (not having to make an effort to be engaged).
- Being ‘away’ from the everyday.
- Visiting an environment big and complex enough to occupy the mind for an extended period.
- Compatibility (not every museum or gallery or exhibit will deliver a therapeutic result – people need to try different places, and experiment).
Dr Johan Newell, a psychiatrist at Brugmann University Hospital, has emphasised that museum and gallery visits are not meant to be a standalone solution, for most people, but researchers around the world will be watching the results of the Brussels therapy experiment carefully.