Wandering through a museum is one of life’s great pleasures and contradictions — at once a private perusal of artistic endeavor and a recognition of community and shared space with other beholders.
For some travelers, museum hopping is the pinnacle of a visit to any city and a way to explore a destination’s identity through a carefully curated collection. For others, memories of school trips and parental duty make them eschew the museum as a relic of the past. People experience museums as tourists, as regulars, to get married or as an event space.
Today, museums are being used for another use: therapy.
The Montreal Museum of Fine Art. Photo from Getty Images.GETTY
The Royal Ontario Museum (or ROM, as Torontonians refer to to the city’s landmark) has recently started offering free admission to those bearing a doctor’s or medical worker’s prescription or referral.
The concept is being promoted as part of a one-year pilot project from the Ontario Ministry of Health and Long-Term Care’s Alliance for Healthier Communities.
Dr. Kate Mulligan of the Alliance for Healthier Communities told The CBC that the idea of social prescriptions is based on efforts in the UK, where similar non-medical interventions have helped shift some issues to community support workers.
In Montreal, a recent partnership between physician members of the Médecins francophones du Canada (MFdC) and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts allows doctors to prescribe museum visits as part of treatment.
“The MMFA-MFdC Museum Prescriptions program is a new treatment tool that makes museum visits accessible to thousands of patients suffering from a variety of physical and mental health problems,” reads a statement on the MMFA’s website. “By offering free admission to a safe, welcoming place, a relaxing, revitalizing experience, a moment of respite, and an opportunity to strengthen ties with loved ones, MMFA-MFdC Museum Prescriptions contribute to the patient’s well-being and recovery.” The museum even dedicates specific areas to art therapy, as well as offering a medical consultation room.
Some museums are taking the idea of healing through art even further with therapy designed to help those affected by the opioid crisis. The Currier Museum of Art in New Hampshire offers an “Art of Hope” program to those who have family members with substance abuse, guiding them through a conversation about the museum’s collections, such as Claude-Joseph Vernet’s painting, “The Storm”. “Educators choose works that can speak to the tempestuous nature of drug addiction and the collateral damage it can inflict on loved ones,” writes Zachary Small in Hyperallergic. “Accordingly, Vernet’s painting depicts turbid waters and a shipwreck, with scrambling survivors dragging loved ones ashore and a gloomy mountain-bound fortress in the distance.”
After the discussion, group members can connect with the material through hands-on engagement in still life painting, working with clay or other forms of artistic expression.
In Indiana, the Eskenazi Museum is starting a similar initiative in 2019 with the Sara and Bob LeBien Arts-Based Wellness Pilot Program for children that have been neglected or abused, providing art-based therapy along with museum exposure and interaction.
Although it may seem that museums are moving well beyond the scope of social space and into the realms of medical science, ultimately, these programs are meant to complement, rather than replace, traditional forms of treatment. “We’re not hospitals. We don’t pretend to be hospitals.” Eskenazi Museum director David Brenneman told The Indiana Daily Student. “But we are places that are safe spaces.”