Museum visits can be a powerful tool in the quest for greater mindfulness
January 27 2022
By Tim Deakin
How better to force ourselves to stay in the present and appreciate every moment than by surrounding ourselves with the very best of art and culture?
With COVID-19, economic chaos, the climate crisis and political uncertainty contributing to the laundry list of worries and concerns that people around the world are currently contending with, it’s not surprising to hear that people are feeling the strain on their mental health. In fact, the World Health Organisation (WHO) reports that more than 264 million people of all ages are suffering from depression globally.
In response to this, the concept of active self-care has rightfully established its place in the public consciousness. And as a museum community, we are seeing a greater appreciation of the role that cultural spaces can play in helping people to feel healthy, happy and centred.
Mindfulness in the museum space
Museums around the world are increasingly engaging with the concept of mindfulness and the role it can play in supporting mental health, particularly following the COVID-19 pandemic. In the UK alone, there are more than 600 museums now running programmes that explore and utilise mindfulness as a technique for establishing and maintaining good mental health. These include both activities designed to improve mental wellbeing and exhibitions reflecting on mindfulness.
But how can museums encourage mindfulness and what are the benefits of this cerebral concept?
Well, it’s no secret that museums exist to attract visitors who will engage with exhibitions, appreciate artefacts and give their attention to that which is in front of them. While paying attention and being in the moment may not sound like much, mental health professionals are unanimous in their assertion that being “present” is something that is a rare commodity in the 21st century.
With such an array of distractions, digital devices, stresses, strains and stimulations, we all spend a sizeable portion of the day with our “minds elsewhere” – often running at a thousand miles an hour. But the concept of mindfulness is to find calmness and an element of peace by paying undivided attention to the present and learning to slow ones thoughts.
So, for those looking to reconnect with their bodies and in-the-moment experiences, where better than museums and galleries. Full of sights, sounds and even smells that nurture immediate thoughts and feelings, museum environments can stimulate the senses without sensory overload.
Back in 2019 the value of mindfulness-focused exhibitions were explored by the Courtauld Institute of Art in London. The panel of curators and academics investigated leading questions like ‘Why has mindfulness become increasingly popular in art museums?’ and ‘Should museums be a place for practising mindfulness and meditation?’
In their collaborative book Museums, Health and Well-being published by University College London Hospital London, Helen Chatterjee and Guy Noble propose that museums can benefit health and wellbeing in a range of ways, including:
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
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
By promoting creativity, confidence and community, museums have a part to play in reducing anxiety, depression and isolation in their visitors.
Meditation, courtesy of museums
As well as promoting mindfulness, museums are also increasingly offering meditation opportunities to further enhance their status as organisations for self-care and wellbeing. Indeed, in many circles mindfulness is considered a form of meditation and the terms are sometimes used interchangeably as tools to centre people in the moment.
In 2020 – during the first surge of COVID-19 panic – the National Museum of Asian Art hosted 30 minute online workshops on meditation and mindfulness, alongside their usual online tours, podcasts and exhibitions. These sessions, designed to be “appropriate for all levels of practitioners”, were intended to help participants “build a relationship to a place of inner quietude.”
Similarly, the Museum of Modern Art has long held a reputation for supporting meditation thanks to its monthly ‘Quiet Mornings’. These provided museumgoers the chance to spend more deliberate and slow time with the institution’s collections and exhibitions, and even encouraged visitors to participate in guided meditation. Not only have Quiet Mornings helped people connect more deeply with the artworks, but also to benefit their wider mental wellbeing.
By marrying museums with mindfulness, our mental health can flourish, as has been demonstrated by the museums-on-prescription movement. This initiative – which began in 2014 – encourages healthcare providers to prescribe exposure to art and culture as part of their treatment for common mental health concerns like anxiety, depression and loneliness.
The future of mindfulness in museums
Now, as museums look to welcome visitors back after periods of enforced lockdown and high anxiety, answering those questions is undoubtedly high on the to-do list. Programming teams can appeal to communities not just by offering intellectual challenges but also by providing a therapeutic experience that genuinely makes a difference to people’s wellbeing.