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Are museums good for your mental health?

Could it be that the benefits of the museum space go far beyond education?

Museums have always been upheld as hubs of knowledge and culture; places where you can expand your understanding of the world around you. But it would be true to say that we sometimes overlook the other benefits that come with broadening our minds, tickling our senses and adding variety to our daily lives: the boost to our mental health and wellbeing.

Mental wellness has become one of the most pressing issues of our time, with an ever-increasing awareness of how important it is to tend to the mind as well as the body. Conditions like anxiety and depression impact millions of people around the world. In fact, more than 264 million people are now thought to suffer from depression globally, according to the World Health Organisation.

So how exactly can museums and galleries support the movement for mental wellbeing? Here are a few examples . . .

Arteffact: museums and creativity for better mental health

In North Wales, a partnership of four museums and galleries have developed a project to deliver museum-based art sessions for people with a history of mental health problems. This was part of a larger research study that asked the question: ‘Can creative engagement in museums improve the mental health and wellbeing of people experiencing mental distress?’

Eight groups of five to 10 participants experienced a series of arts-based workshops lasting up to 10 weeks in four museums across North Wales: Anglesey, Gwynedd, Conwy and Denbighshire. These workshops were designed to support the needs of people at risk of or recovering from mental distress.

The findings of the study concluded that creative activity in museums has a significant beneficial impact on the mental wellbeing of people suffering from mental distress, and that the museum setting itself contributed to this effect.

A learning space

The Arteffact project is an example of how far museums can go in helping vulnerable people, but of course workshops designed to relieve mental stress are not a long-term norm for most cultural institutions. However, what all museums do provide is a space for learning, which in itself can have mental health benefits.

The NHS reports that learning new skills and information can improve mental wellbeing over time, and studies support this. One 2011 study published by the Mental Health Foundation recognised the importance of lifelong learning for wellbeing, while one 2018 Australian study explored the benefits of learning as an adult in terms of maintaining wellness, boosting self-esteem and creating a sense of purpose.

This is something many museums take on board, including the Mori Art Museum in Japan. The museum describes learning in the museum as the process of joining together to “acquire a deeper, broader knowledge contemporary art from around the world.” While we all have “different interests, know-how and experiences”, the museum describes learning in the museum as a chance to “share these while we come to understand” both each other and ourselves on a deeper level.

Studies suggest museums have a vital role in happiness and health

One of the most startling showcases of museums benefitting the mental wellbeing of their visitors comes from a review headed by Helen Chatterjee and Guy Noble, and published by University College London Hospital.

This review collated and explored the findings from hundreds of museum projects, reports, publications and other evidence, bringing them all together in their collaborative book Museums, Health and Wellbeing. The aim of the research was to find out, “If museums really can make you happier and healthier.”

Chatterjee describes the results as both “startling and impressive”.

By gathering together both scientific and anecdotal evidence, Chatterjee and Noble concluded that museums benefit health and wellbeing in a range of ways, providing:

–        Positive social experiences and reduced social isolation

–        Learning opportunities and the chance to develop new skills

–        Calming experiences which decrease anxiety levels

–        Positive emotions such as hope, enjoyment and optimism

–        Self-esteem and a sense of self and community

–        Positive distractions from clinical environments

–        Increased opportunities for finding meaning

–        New experiences which may be inspirational or meaningful

–        Communication between families, carers and health professionals

The National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing

A 2016 report from the National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing looked at the role of museums in providing support for people’s mental health and stability.

Findings from the report were extremely promising, indicating that museums and other cultural institutions have a significant part to play in promoting mental wellness.

Speaking about the report’s findings, Director of Museums and East of England John Orna-Ornstein from Arts Council England commented:

“It is clear from this report that the museums sector is making an enormous contribution to improving people’s lives and enhancing physical health and mental wellbeing. This is an exciting new era for the sector, which is leading the way in demonstrating how culture can actively contribute to prevention of ill health, quality of life, healthy ageing and human flourishing.”

A chance to give back

A trip to a museum may be considered to be an opportunity to take stock, reflect and practice mindfulness. But they also offer the chance to give back through fundraisers, community efforts and local campaigns. Research has shown time and time again that, by helping others, we can help to boost our own mental health and wellbeing. The Mental Health Foundation even created a publication entitled Doing Good Does You Good, which reflects on the mental health benefits of altruism.

There are numerous examples of museums flexing their altruistic muscles. The Iziko South African Museum, for example, offers a range of learning experiences for visitors, including art, natural history and social history educations. These efforts also include outreach programmes for diverse school groups and audiences, and the museum also provides a mobile exhibition that brings artefacts to the people and makes the museum accessible for the poor and those living in remote rural areas.

The bottom line

The benefits of museums go far beyond simply providing knowledge. While learning is key from a purely practical and academic standpoint, there is a huge psychological element that we must never forget. For those who seek sanctuary and solace in creative surroundings we should treasure the way in which museums can help to reduce feelings of anxiety, isolation and depression in their visitors. What’s more, we’re increasingly seeing examples of museums actively working to improve mental health within local communities, with fantastic results.

Interested in joining us to discuss the challenges and opportunities facing museums over the coming years? Explore our events calendar here for all our latest conferences.

About the author – Rebecca Carlsson

Rebecca Carlsson is a journalist writing extensively about the arts. She has a passion for modern art and when she’s not writing about museums, she can be found spending her weekends in them.

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