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What social prescribing can do for museums

With COVID-19 turning society on its head for the past two years, we’re all more familiar with the concept and consequences of social isolation. We know first-hand how being cut off from friends, loved ones and even people we meet on the street can impact on mental health. So, it should come as no surprise that healthcare professionals would look to prescribe experiences and excursions alongside medical treatment for those who are suffering from issues such as stress, low mood, anxiety and depression. This is known as social prescribing.

Social prescribing has, in fact, been a successful form of treatment for many years. And with museum visits have long been top of the to-do lists for those who are told by their healthcare providers to get out in the world and explore new experiences.

But what exactly is social prescribing, and how is it being utilised to benefit both patients and the museums they visit? Let’s take a closer look.

Social prescribing: a background

Social prescribing is most commonly used in relation to primary care or general practice. Medical professionals may recommend social activities either instead of or as well as more conventional forms of medical treatment.

Back in 2018, the NHS Long-Term Plan announced their expectations for social prescribing as a treatment option, saying that within five years, 2.5 million people are set to benefit from it. This was then followed up by the Social Prescribing Myth Buster publication from London Arts and Health, which included a free UCL Life Learning Course developed by the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance. Those on the course were introduced to the benefits of social prescribing, with a particular focus on the arts.


Museums-on-prescription – otherwise known as arts-on-prescription or arts-on-referral – is a subsection of social prescription, through which GPs can recommend visits to museums and other cultural institutions as a means of treating medical symptoms.

As an award-winning research project, Museums on Prescription was led by Professor Helen Chatterjee. The website for the project includes a systematic review of 86 social prescribing schemes, while an annual review by the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance found that 40% of its members are working with social prescribing, from visits to an arts café to tackle loneliness, to joining a choir in answer to social isolation in elderly patients.

What’s more, four creative social prescribing initiatives came together in a press release from the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Arts, Health & Wellbeing (Arts & Minds, START Inspiring Minds, Arts on Prescription Gloucestershire, and the Community Connector Scheme). They revealed that their efforts into museums-on-prescription have led to “a 37% drop in GP consultation rates and a 27% reduction in hospital admissions.”

For every £1 invested in arts-on-prescription, a social return of £4 to £11 has been calculated.

Why utilise social prescribing for museums?

The social impact of museums-on-prescription can help individuals improve aspects of their health and wellbeing, in a way that’s directly accessible from their primary healthcare source.

By providing resources and activities designed to engage and inspire, museums can aid those suffering from loneliness, social isolation and mental ill-health. Museums-on-prescription can create opportunities for cultural and social interaction, building new friendships and strengthening a sense of community and identity.

The original Museums on Prescription project was specifically designed to help older adults who had been identified as socially isolated, lonely or otherwise vulnerable.

Social prescribing can be equally beneficial for museums themselves, of course. By partnering with healthcare initiatives, cultural establishments can provide clear evidence of the impact and importance of the arts on wider society. In many cases, museum practitioners have utilised the research gathered through projects like Museums on Prescription in order to advise audience development and future partnerships, helping to meet the needs of their communities and audiences in more practical and strategic ways.

Social prescribing makes the link between health and wellbeing and cultural participation abundantly clear. This gives museums some much-needed impetus at a time when the future of many cultural institutions has been tested far beyond capacity. It clearly shows the importance of cultural stimulation for our mental health and shines a light on just how important museums are to the communities they serve.

The MuseumNext Museums, Health & Wellbeing Summit will be held from 31st January to 2nd February, and will feature inspiring ideas and case studies from those championing health and wellbeing in museums. Click here to book your tickets now, to make sure you don’t miss out.

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