Museums are the new medicine
Can art make you live longer?
The answer is yes, simply looking at art and being immersed in its presence can make you feel better and happier. One can just get lost in their thoughts through the beauty that one is surrounded by in a museum. Very subtly, museums play a role in broadening our minds, showing us life in a 360 degree view and unravelling the many facets of culture, all through art. For time immemorial we have believed in art and its cathartic powers but today science can actually verify that visiting a museum has a significant impact on wellbeing . Research suggests that for mental rejuvenation there needs to be a change in the person’s environment, such as being surrounded by nature or simply visiting a museum which can provide that same experience!
Museums as a place for healing
The term museum is derived from the Greek word mouseion, meaning “the shrine of the muses”. A muse, as a noun, is defined as a “spirit or other source of genius or artistic inspiration;” its definition as a verb is “to think, reflect or meditate”. As the roots of the word “museum” imply, museums are places of meditation and contemplation.
The lockdown was a long period of mental distress, marked by anxiety and the chaos within. While each day seemed to get tougher than the day before, doctors came up with a creative yet classic solution to mental health issues; instead of prescribing medicines and all kinds of expensive drugs, doctors actually prescribed their patients to visit museums.
In 2017, the Montreal Museum of Fine Art created an Art and Health Committee to study the effects of art on those suffering from chronic disease, cancer, and mental disorders. The findings suggested that those who visited the museum had an enriching and positive experience, hence from November 2018, doctors of Canada have given free museum prescriptions to their patients!
Brussels city councillor Delphine Houba, inspired by Canada’s initiative, organised a three-month trial in 2021, allowing doctors at the Brugmann hospital's mental health unit to prescribe museum visits to their patients who were suffering from stress. Patients with a prescription could visit several participating museums in Brussels as part of their recovery from Covid-19-related mental health issues. Similarly, a study undertaken at the University of Pennsylvania looked at over 100 studies that explored the emotional experience of visiting a museum, and Katherine Cotter, a postdoctoral fellow, says “If you just go for half an hour to an art museum and measure people’s cortisol levels before they go in, after half an hour it shows the kind of recovery time [normally] equivalent to a few hours.”
How exactly does visiting a museum benefit you?
The World Health Organization reported a link between culture and health born from the new field of 'neuroaesthetics,'. Studies have shown how beneficial cultural engagement is for one's mental and physical health, directly tracing dynamic neural connectivity and stimulation.
Visiting museums, to a large extent, promotes positive emotions and feelings of engagement, which results in an improved quality of life. It can also help with reducing stress because it immediately decreases the production of cortisol (a stress hormone) in our bodies. Museums, both in terms of the artworks and the visitors, can make us feel more connected and less isolated. It may even lead to the development of a like-minded community. Great art connects us with those who are passionate about the same things as we are, it helps reduce loneliness, something that has reached epidemic levels, and can incur damage equivalent to consuming 15 cigarettes a day.
While researchers continue to be intrigued by how exactly museums have a particular effect on us, there are some striking features that only museums possess; The architectural boundaries of a museum (scale, lighting, temperature, circulation, display, etc.), mark a clear difference between the museum and the world outside of it. It is as though one steps into a museum there is a significant shift in behaviour, cognition. and emotion.
“Museums serve as symbols of society”, the diversity represented through the art mirrors not only the diverse customs and traditions but also our values as individuals and our inimitable ways of expression. In this way, one’s uniqueness feels seen and validated within a museum.
“There is no human deed or thought that is fully outside the experience of other people”, All of man’s triumphs and failures are depicted through various artefacts, and this very feature leads to the realisation that as humans, we share a lot of common features and shakes the sense of isolation present within us.
Museums invite visitors to take a peek into the collective experience of human beings. Philippe de Montebello, director of the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, describes museums as, “quite literally and succinctly, as the memory of mankind.”
In a world ruled by Netflix we have all become slaves to mass media, instant pleasure and gratification, and there is little room left for appreciation of true art. Through this article, it is obvious that museum culture and the respect we once had for art needs to be resurrected. Museums give meaning to our lives in a way that movies can’t. And today science has quantified the magic spell that museums cast on us. It has now been established that people who regularly participate in cultural events have a higher chance of living to a certain age than those who have nothing to do with the arts. So, if you have a few days off this week, go to a museum, a play, or a concert. And who knows, it might just help you live a little longer!