Museums can function as frontline care institutions
“I seem to have lost my ability to make small talk,” one of my favorite extroverts shared with me as we discussed our COVID-related anxieties. A small social bubble paired with remote work and a predisposition to anxiety has impacted many of us, extrovert or not. As we adapt to life with COVID-19 and its variants, we have seen several ways that our society has expanded its definition of care to be both more expansive and less ableist. The expansion of care and the growth of ‘wellness’ as an industry have found their way into museum practices. There has been a growing amount of data about the benefits of museums on everything from dementia in older adults to general pain management to psychological trauma. Some insurers are now even covering the cost of museum therapy. But what does this mean for museums and for museum visitors?
Museum therapy can look a lot of different ways. It can vary from docent tours, meditation or mindfulness classes, group therapy, or a combination of creating one’s own art (art therapy) with additional reflection from the museum space. The Montreal Museum of Art was one of the first museums to institutionalize museum therapy into its programming over 20 years ago. Since then, almost every major museum has incorporated some sort of wellness strategy. At the beginning of the pandemic The Queens Museum hosted online art therapy, The Cincinnati Museum of Art is training docents to be trauma-informed, LACMA hosts online and in-person classes for people who have early dementia and Alzheimer’s. By incorporating these practices and programs, museums are shifting the historic understandings of museums as cultural warehouses or academic knowledge to an intersectional learning and healing space.
In some ways, this change in utility is beneficial for individuals and for museums alike. In a 2019 self-report study, researchers found that docent-led tours simultaneously decreased pain while increasing a sense of social connections with participants. This finding builds on existing research around the necessity for human connection and its impacts on the body. It is also no wonder that museums hold a special capacity to support programs for dementia, Alzheimer’s, and aging. Museums are inherently social and connect that sociality to intellectual and aesthetic engagement. As Dr. Ravj Singh pointed out,” “The medical profession has been shifting from thinking about health in terms of an individual or group, as opposed to medication as only cure. Our consciousness is in two parts, persona and racial. Racial consciousness is archetype and results in dreams in a person’s mind.” Another healing around cultural trauma may also occur if the programming and curation allow it. This, of course, relies on museums programming and curators to keep trauma in mind. Museums have made these pivots before after major events like 9/11 or natural disasters. But content & programming driven to support wellness are dependent on the resources-both financial and material given to museums. It may benefit both museums and insurers to partner proactively on incorporating wellness-driven programming. Clearly, there are a lot of concerns when it comes to developing these types of relationships. Museum professionals can establish boundaries that preserve the ethics and integrity of their collections, exhibitions, and programming while still reaching out to the communities they serve. However, until then not all museums will have easy access to museum therapy. That does not mean that you can’t engage in therapeutic practices on your own.
Becoming a member of your local and/or favorite museum and providing feedback is one way to advocate for a therapeutic programing at your local museum. Another way to look for online activities such as those offered through the museums mentioned early. While the social connection may be virtual, it will still employ the art and mindfulness practices that show benefit. If you’re ready to go into a museum, book a docent tour, take your time to connect with new people, objects, and art in a space that is designed for this type of engagement. If you’re feeling even more adventurous, have your work team or social bubble do a self-guided tour or scavenger hunt at the museum, incorporate a sense of play. It’s a great way to have structured conversation and ease back into that small talk many of us have lost the skill of over the last two years.
By rethinking the museum as a care center for ourselves, our community, and our culture, we expand opportunities for wellness. This discussion has been focused on some of the foundations of museum therapy and its benefits to individuals and museums. There are, of course, potential drawbacks to viewing museums through a wellness lens that can include the possible impact of the insurance industry’s influence on museum content, the potential to limit curatorial conversation or further distance museums from communities that are disenfranchised from museums and/or therapy. For now, museums have the potential to expand not only cultural knowledge but internal insight. And at times when the world is so desperately hurting, a little bit of art, light, and beauty might get us through. In her article about the importance of laughter in medicine, Fawn Ring writes, “If both art and humor are healing, should we encourage more laughter in museums and hospitals? Currently, both institutions tacitly or explicitly encourage quiet, and restraint is understood as a social norm.” So, go connect to your museum, enjoy what you see, say hi to a stranger, and laugh a lot along the way.
AC Panella is a teacher, recent Ph.D., and museum enthusiast. His scholarly work is centered around trans collective memory, his teaching work incorporates museums and communication studies.