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How can museums embrace art therapy techniques?

Image: Unsplash


Museums are rightfully gaining recognition as spaces for emotional healing, as well as intellectual learning. Here’s how.

Self-care as a concept and as a practice has gained significant traction in the past decade or so. Around the world, people and brands alike are becoming more in touch with their own wellbeing, taking the necessary steps to improve quality of life and support both physical and mental health. And this movement has only grown since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic.

As society has become more aware of self-care, so too have museums. Throughout the course of history, museums have transformed from collections of the wealthy and influential, to reflections of wider society. Whether it is following interactive tours, participating in workshops or simply whiling away the hours and enjoying the sanctuary of a hall or gallery, museums have cemented themselves as spaces for emotional reflection as well as intellectual learning.

With all of this in mind, we’re going to take a closer look at both how and why museums are implementing art therapy into their visitor offerings.

What is art therapy?

As the name suggests, art therapy brings together art and psychotherapy, exercising the belief that there are mental health benefits involved in the creative process. Art therapy uses art as its primary mode of communication, encouraging individuals to express themselves and explore feelings, thoughts, issues and difficulties.

Utilised for adults and children alike, art therapy embraces solidarity, empathy and compassion through the medium of creativity. The works created during art therapy – be they collage, photography, sculpture, painting or another form of artistic expression – can bridge verbal and non-verbal communication to help participants better understand others and themselves.

There is very little pressure placed on the quality of the work itself. Art created during art therapy doesn’t have to be aesthetically pleasing. Rather, it is there to help the artist make discoveries through the act of creating itself.

Why museums and galleries?

Museums and galleries are the natural environments for art therapy, because they themselves bring together culture and wellbeing. Museums are known for providing collective imagery and artefacts, and giving visitors the chance to learn more about the world around them. However, they are also becoming more widely known for their role in supporting and nurturing emotional development – that of developing confidence, creativity and self-esteem.

Initiatives like museums-on-prescription are becoming more commonplace, and involve healthcare professionals prescribing museum visits as a way to tackle mental health concerns like loneliness and anxiety. The All-Party Parliamentary Group for Arts, Health & Wellbeing found that museums-on-prescription led to “a 37% drop in GP consultation rates and a 27% reduction in hospital admissions.”

In a 2016 report by Sarah Hamil titled The Art Museum as a Therapeutic Space, Hamil discussed the role of museums as “a place inclusive of diverse groups” that could serve “as a place of sanctuary and restoration, as well as a place to connect in creativity, exploration and learning.”

Hamil continues: “Collaborations between museums and art therapists serve as a catalyst for healing and transformation by using collective resources to enrich communities.”

How is art therapy being implemented?

As art therapy garners more and more attention, increasing numbers of museums are utilising it as part of the programmes and services they offer.

The National Museum of Contemporary Art in Greece is one such example. Back in 2015 a pilot art psychotherapy programme was launched entitled ‘Exploring the Museum’s Images – Exploring My Image’.

The aim of the programme was to develop participants’ interests and give them the opportunity to use the creative process to reflect on their feelings and experiences, build their ego and reduce anxiety. Following a successful pilot, other museums around the world introduced similar programs, including the Dulwich Picture Gallery (London), the Memphis Brooks Museum of Art (Tennessee), the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Washington, DC), and the BALTIC Centre for Contemporary Art (Gateshead).

The National Gallery of Australia is another institution which has utilised art therapy for a range of audiences, introducing a variety of programmes such as ‘Art and Dementia’ to help people living with dementia tackle loneliness and explore emotions, and ‘Yoga for Lunch’ to help people engage with art and each other in an informal way.

Implementing art therapy is just one of the ways that museums can be more than just a collection of artefacts and items housed under one roof. It’s a way for institutions to embed themselves within their communities, contributing to the welfare of those who choose to engage with them.

Find out more about the health and wellbeing issues currently impacting museums at the upcoming Museums, Health and Wellbeing Summit, running 31st January – 2nd February 2022.

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