The beneficial effects of art on human health are well-known and well-documented. For centuries, people used art creation and observation to deal with stress, cope with trauma, and improve self-awareness and self-esteem. In the 1940s, art therapy was established as a method of using art to treat physical and psychological disorders and improve overall human health. Art therapies usually took place in medical settings (hospitals, wellness centers, mental health clinics, private therapy offices…). But in recent years, art therapies have moved to museums and other art venues.
And there’s a good reason for that. When placed in an artistic setting, away from the rigidness of medical facilities, patients feel more relaxed, welcomed and inspired. Therapies in art institutions, allow patients the freedom to use the space as they see fit, choose what they want to look at, and gain inspiration by submerging themselves into the display.
It’s no surprise then, that in many Western countries, museums and art galleries have added art therapies to their educational programs. Let’s take a look at different types of therapies available in art institutions, and how they can affect your overall health and mood.
Image via MuseumNext
Manchester's Mindful Museum
Realizing the positive effects of art on human wellbeing, Manchester Art Gallery has created the Mindful Museum program. The idea was to invite people to come to the gallery’s specially equipped sitting areas, where they can rest and observe artworks while listening to apt music. Everything in the gallery space was set up in a way that allowed people to just relax and breathe. The program is meant to reduce stress and improve visitors’ well-being by enticing them to observe the world around them, meticulously and non-judgmentally. It is proven that this type of careful observation brings changes in levels of happiness.
Mindfulness comes in several phases. Upon their first encounter with an artwork, people think about the piece in front of them (the lines, the colors, etc.) and then they pay attention to the surrounding, architecture, placement, music, sounds, and other viewers. Then, thoughts arouse - thoughts about upcoming tasks, unanswered emails, personal problems... Mindful observation of gallery works enables viewers to detect their thoughts as soon as they appear, stage by stage, moment by moment. And by observing our thoughts, we discover ways to solve our problems, organize tasks and manage stress.
The positive effects of mindfulness were proven by clinical studies. A study conducted by the Massachusetts General Hospital, for instance, confirmed that mindful thinking is effective in dealing with depression and stress. According to the study, after only 8 weeks of mindfulness meditations, the region of a brain associated with fear and stress shrank, while centers for learning and memory experienced growth.
Prescribed Museum Visits in Montreal
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts is one of the pioneers of museum-based art therapies, a practice they often refer to as “museotherapies.” The museum in Canada worked together with physicians, researchers and art therapists for decades to develop effective programs that combine art, wellness and health. The museum established various therapy groups for people with different conditions including eating disorders, autism, learning difficulties, mental health disorders and inclusion problems.
Conducted in special museum facilities, (consisting of a workshop studio, creative art hive and medical consultation room), museotherapy encompasses three strategies. First, visiting exhibitions accompanied by an educator, second, making art in creative workshops and third, exhibiting patients’ works in the museum.
By measuring art therapy results, the researchers discovered that art normalizes the levels of cortisol and serotonin, hormones that control happiness and stress. The regulation of these hormones is not just good for people with mental illnesses (anxiety, depression...), but can also help with a variety of other deceases, like diabetes, cancer, high blood pressure or high cholesterol... Additionally, the program highlighted enhanced mobility and reduction of pain, slower heartbeats and shortness of breath improvements, as positive effects of art therapy.
The therapies were so effective that today, art in Canada has the status of official medicine. Since last year, doctors in Montreal can prescribe museum visits, thus allowing free entry to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, for patients and their companions.
Image via Courtauld Institute of Art
Therapy and Inclusion in German Städel Museum
Städel Museum in Frankfurt, Germany also employs the power of art therapy for improving the wellbeing or people suffering from dementia or cancer. Programs made in collaboration with experts consist of guided tours followed by workshops, where participants make their own art pieces inspired by the museum collection.
Looking at the museum artifacts helped patients distract their mind from their illness and positively affected their mood. Images of old neighborhoods and the surrounding space sparked recollections in dementia patients and improved their memory. Workshops, on the other hand, encouraged socialization and communication, raised participants’ morale and equipped them with new skills, despite their limited quality of life.
Stay Safe! Take a Tour into Virtual World
Art therapy has proven to be a simple, affordable and effective way to improve human health and wellbeing. During the coronavirus pandemic, visiting museums in person could be tricky, but taking a virtual tour through their collections can have the same effect. Almost all major museums and art venues (the British Museum, Rijksmuseum, Musée du Louvre, the Met…) have online collections and virtual museum tours that can make you feel like you're inside the venue. And what better way to relax, get your mind off the virus and spend time in isolation, than by discovering outstanding art from world-renowned institutions.