National Gallery Victoria, Australia: Paintings and Sculpture. Photo by Mitchell Luo on Unsplash

Why Visit Museums? Feel Restored & Improve Your Mental Wellbeing!

Museums, whether filled with paintings and sculpture, rocking chairs and samplers, or exhibits about science, are visited by families, groups of friends, individuals, couples on a date, out-of-town tourists, retirement centers, school groups, and more. Sometimes we visit because we’ve been before and we have favorite objects to look at. Other times, we visit a local history museum to learn about a new town we’re visiting. And sometimes we go because of a special exhibit about a famous artist or a topic that interests us. And, we may be prompted to visit because of a special event — an art class, a wine tasting, or a concert.

Leslie Edwards, a lifelong Michigander who enjoys all types of museums says, “I go to museums to learn new things and/or be inspired. The experience may lead me to alter my perception or want to explore something new or delve into something old in more depth.”

While David Hanna’s travels often focus on flora and fauna, he and his wife also visit museums. David says, “There are amazing things to see in this world, from hundreds of thousands of King Penguins on a beach in South Georgia, to a painting by Monet in the Museé d’Orsay. Beauty can take many forms.”

Deb Arnold, who lives in Western North Carolina explains why she visits museums. “When I go to a museum, it’s nearly always a transformative experience. In a very short time I can find myself in a new place, see things I’ve never seen before, and learn exciting facts heretofore unbeknownst to me.”

Museums provide multiple opportunities for us to learn, to remember, and to explore. Different parts of our brains are activated by the looking and learning that occurs during museum visits. Our health and wellbeing can be improved no matter what type of museum we visit.

One study in Queensland, Australia, Beyond Learning: Exploring Visitors’ Perceptions of the Value & Benefits of Museum Experiences, examined a variety of outcomes not related to learning. The article referenced the restorative elements of visiting a museum. Participants in the study mentioned that museums let them get away from the stresses and hassles of life, and how a museum visit lets you find your own answers and draw your own conclusions. Additionally, elements of psychological wellbeing were mentioned including personal growth, environmental mastery, purpose in life, positive relations, and self-acceptance.

In an article, This Is Your Brain On Art, Oshin Vartanian explains that MRI studies recorded multiple parts of the brain lighting up when participants looked at art. These included not just object identification, but processing emotions, pleasure and reward, daydreaming, and thinking about the future.

While studies often focus on the positive impact on wellbeing that occurs from visiting art museums, the world is also filled with history museums, historic house museums, science museums, children’s museums, natural history museums, arboretums, and many other types of museums and cultural organizations that share and communicate about important aspects of a town, region, state, or country’s history, geography, art, furnishings, glassware, flora and fauna, and more.

Photo by S O C I A L . C U T on Unsplash

Museums, no matter what the focus of their collection, tell stories. And storytelling is good for our brain. Stories about objects in museums add color, insights, details, and relatable connections. In addition, storytelling, improves our brain. Why Storytelling Matters: Unveiling the Literacy Benefits of Storytelling, explains that storytelling helps with “practice in visualization, cognitive engagement, critical thinking, and story sequencing.” Pamela Rutledge, PhD, explains that storytelling powerfully connects us to others, teaches empathy, exposes us to new ways of thinking, shares intense emotions, and builds our imagination and creativity. Museum stories may come in the form of guided tours, flyers and handouts, audio tours, wall labels, educational programs, and more.

Over the past several years, Britain has added a focus on non-medical interventions that address psychosocial wellbeing which includes connecting people with museums and other cultural organizations. Within the National Health Service, they are working to shift from a deficit-based approach toward health care, to finding new ways to support health and wellbeing. “A growing body of evidence shows that museums can bring benefits to individual and community health and wellbeing in their role as public forums for debate and learning, their work with specific audiences through targeted programmes, and by contributing to positive wellbeing and resilience by helping people to make sense of the world and their place within it,” suggests Mind, Body, Spirit: How museums Impact Health and Wellbeing. This relates to all museum collections, whether they be art, history, or science.

When considering the experiences and attitudes that build mental health and wellness, there are multiple ways to identify wellness characteristics. The New Economics Foundation (NEF) in Britain developed a list of five ways to wellbeing. They considered both feeling good and functioning well. NEF’s five ways to build wellness include ways for individuals to connect, be active, give, take notice, and keep learning.

Whether you’re a regular museum visitor, an occasional museum visitor, or someone who is hesitant about visiting museums, here are a few strategies for museum visits that will help build your mental wellness. In one or more ways, each of them relate to connecting, being active, giving, taking notice, and to keep learning. Some will fit you and your personality. Some will feel odd or uncomfortable — try them anyway!

Long chair, by Marcel Breuer. Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.
  • Select a material — lace, wood, aluminum, stone, diamonds, etc. and find objects made of that material or that depict that material and keep a list or take pictures of them.

-Pick a color or a pattern and focus on that throughout your visit. For example, look for textiles, furniture, and paintings that include pale yellow. Or, look for all objects that have connecting squares in the design.

-Pick one museum object and without reading the label create a story about it. If you’re with other people, create a story-in-the-round where each person adds one part of the story.

-Find an object that you find pretty, pleasant, or calming. Sit for 5 minutes looking at only that object. Look at every aspect of it. Think about the maker of that artifact. Wonder about the history of where that object has been throughout time.

-Find one object that seems especially odd or hard to understand. Stand or sit near that object and listen to what other people say about that object. Do you hear anything that makes you look at that object in a new way?

“Winter Scene in Moonlight.” Artist. Artist, Henry Farrer, 1869.
“Winter Scene in Moonlight.” Artist. Artist, Henry Farrer, 1869.
Winter Scene in Moonlight, Metropolitan Museum of Art

-Come up with a photo prompt before you go into the museum — example: blue, food, birds, flowers, families, pets, calmness, weather — and take photos of objects that connect to that prompt.

-Take a notebook to the museum along with a pencil or pen. Don’t be an artist, but be a careful observer. Sketch the corner of an elaborate frame. Notice an intricate pattern on a textile, or the inlay or engraving on a gun stock and sketch that.

-When you arrive at the museum, ask a staff person what their favorite object in the museum is. Ask them why it’s their favorite. Make a point to go look at that object and consider your own reaction to that piece of art.

Gilded frame, Florence, 16th century. Metropolitan Museum of Art.
  • If you’re at an art museum, focus on the frames rather than the art. Frames can add to the overall artistic impression, or they can be subtle and fade away. Sometimes the artist framed the piece themselves, other times the art was framed later by someone not connected to the artist. The frames can tell stories about the art, the artist, society, materials, and more!

No matter which museum you visit, or how you visit, your mental health and wellness will be improved. You might learn something completely new! You might grow your emotional resilience! Or you might take a break from daily stressors and feel restored!

Blending art & mental wellness. Therapist. Curator. Savvy museum visitor. Traveler. Ever curious. Asheville. www.artformentalwellness.com.

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