In 2013, the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) published a report adding “healthcare provider” to the long list of a museum’s public functions and values, including: educational supporter, civic asset, cultural steward, tourism generator, and job creator. Upon its release, then-President of AAM Ford Bell pointed out, “For too long, elected officials and other policy makers have viewed museums as amenities, rather than as essential community anchors.” An acknowledgement of—and concerted effort to emphasize—the fact that the role museums play, with regards to mental health, has only increased in the past decades as mental health became a broader societal focus and less stigmatized. As places of interaction, learning, and communication, museums are particularly well-suited to supply services and information, and actively contribute to the greater conversation about mental health.
Post-pandemic, museums and cultural institutions will hopefully emerge with renewed commitments to the communities they serve. In regards to mental health, cultural institutions can help provide the infrastructure for care, learning, and leisure to help allay debilitating conditions in contexts outside the hospital. Indeed, existing and exacerbated chasms of inequity and trauma will need directed attention and loving support, but cultural institutions can serve as an equalizing space that actively destigmatizes negative associations with mental health issues.
As we assess what this new museum may look like, we take inspiration from a long list of exhibitions and entities that are incorporating mental health into their programming. Museumgoers might be familiar with existing programs, like the rising popularity of yoga and meditation classes, however, some institutions have begun to experiment more ambitiously in terms of programming and partnerships as you will see below. While some of the programs are tailored to specific audiences and treatment goals, they demonstrate how improving access and inclusion for vulnerable and marginalized groups benefits everyone.
Single exhibitions, the public’s primary interface with most museums, can be harnessed as platforms for addressing wellness. Here are three inventive shows on mental health topics:
The Changing Face of What is Normal: Mental Health, Exploratorium (2013-14), photo by Gayle Laird, © Exploratorium, www.
San Francisco’s Exploratorium, a hands-on science museum, fosters novel learning experiences guided by human perception and curiosity. The exhibition The Changing Face of What is Normal: Mental Health charted the evolution of both scientific and societal conceptions of its topic; it sought to destigmatize mental illness and honor affected clients and caregivers. According to the curators, “Because the Exploratorium is perhaps best known as a museum of interactive experiences, we hoped to experiment with the creation of an active, immersive exhibition on a challenging topic that might not seem amenable to such an approach.” For example, in a section devoted to the ways psychiatric patients have been restrained over time, visitors could try out a wooden-slatted caged bed (“Utica crib”) common in asylums and hospitals during the 1800s. The physicality simply, yet effectively, reinforced the bodily experience of the display object and viewing subject.
niv Acosta and Fannie Sosa, Black Power Naps, Performance Space New York (2019), photo by Avi Avion.
Performance Space New York hosted an exhibition early last year underlining the unequal “sleep gap.” People of color regularly get less rest than their white counterparts. The sculptural installation by Afro-Latinx artists niv Acosta and Fannie Sosa, Black Power Naps, was comprised of numerous vibrational healing devices: soft relaxing surfaces inviting exhausted (Black, indigenous, migrant, queer, trans) bodies to lay down and rejuvenate. The exhibition brought much needed attention to the racialized sleep deficit, while, at the same time, proposing a welcoming environment as a reparative antidote. Importantly, the artists foregrounded and taught sensitivity training for cultural workers and white institutions, so as to ensure that the intended audiences and the goals of their project were properly supported and manifested.
The Peace Exhibit (2020), courtesy Chudy Ogobegwu
Nigerian photographer Chudy Ogobegwu started the online pan-African Peace Exhibit to feature photography and text dealing with depression and anxiety. Although prompted by COVID-19, Ogobegwu thought it could be a creative and therapeutic vehicle to present responses to a topic often considered taboo across the continent. Despite not being talked about publicly nor addressed clinically at scale, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates millions of sub-Saharan Africans suffer from high rates of depression and suicide. Until fairly recently, both Western and African experts felt mental health disorders and depression were less prevalent in poverty-stricken countries. Unremarked by the United Nations in 2000, “mental health care for all” is now a part of the UN sustainable development goals for 2030. The Peace Exhibit plays an illuminating role in terms of representation and empathy, in addition to data collection via a mood assessment survey for African creatives. Ogobegwu feels the digital version helped expand its global reach, yet he plans to transform the project into a touring display. In the transition toward a physical show, he notes that, ideally, the installations will occur in popular locations like shopping malls since there is less of a gallery-going public in major African cities.
Museum ←→ Hospital
The growing overlap between museums and health professionals is an exciting development. These undertakings span in-house programs and collaborations with external organizations, either importing elements of the hospital into museums or, vice versa, exporting parts of the museum to hospitals.
School activity. The Museum of Fine Arts of Montreal. Photo: Caroline Hayeur / Collectif Stock Photo.
The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) is one of the leaders in fusing and studying the relationship between art and health via innovative programs and clinical studies. There is a full-time art therapist on staff, who works with the Education and Wellness Division, and the building has dedicated spaces for art therapy and medical consultation. Beginning in 2018, physicians could start prescribing visits to the MMFA as part of treatment plans in a joint venture between the museum and Médecins francophones du Canada. The free visits, for patients along with their caregivers, attest to the positive role art can play in rehabilitation. According to the museum, “projects are geared to a variety of clientele: people with eating disorders, such as anorexia and bulimia; autism spectrum disorder or intellectual challenges; victims of breast cancer; people suffering from cardiac arrhythmia, epilepsy, language or sensory disorders, or mental health issues; the elderly; and people with Alzheimer’s disease.” The durations range from one-day workshops to multiple-visits over several months.
Le Louvre à l’hôpital, photo by Olivier Ouadah, courtesy Musée du Louvre
The “Louvre in Hospitals” project, a cooperation between the Musée du Louvre and Parisian hospitals, utilizes the institution’s collection and expertise to improve the lives of patients, combat social exclusion caused by illness, and enrich the experiences and relationships of inpatients, staff, and visitors. The Louvre installs reproductions of artworks in patient rooms and on the grounds, from three-dimensional sculpture casts to two-dimensional facsimiles. Facilitators run interactive activities and guided tours related to the works. An evaluation of the art sessions observed reduced levels of anxiety in 80% of participants, signaling effective mitigation of hospital-related stresses and depression. The Louvre program, and others like it across Europe, are especially helpful in introducing elements often missing from clinical settings like aesthetic or tactile stimulation, all the more valuable since Western medicine downplays the role of sensory experience and pleasure in the healing process.
Gardens, Everyday Cultivation
Immersion in nature, from parks to wilderness, is proven to reduce stress, anxiety, and depression. Botanical gardens and museums with green spaces promote numerous psychological, social, and physical benefits by mixing nature, creativity, and learning. The multi-sensory aspect of gardens is particularly beneficial in cases of dementia, where strong tactile, olfactory, and aural elements contrast with the usual don’t touch atmosphere and dominant visuality of museum experiences.
Edible Academy, New York Botanical Garden, photo by Robert Benson Photography, courtesy NYBG
This year the New York Botanical Gardens (NYBG) launched a program to help veterans suffering from PTSD and physical health challenges. Developed in collaboration with the Resilience and Wellness Center of a Veterans Administration hospital, the Therapeutic Horticulture and Rehabilitative Interventions for Veteran Engagement (THRIVE) program will serve approximately 300 veterans over the next three years. Small groups attend weekly three-hour sessions and participate in seasonal gardening activities like planting, watering, weeding, harvesting, and cooking. The goal is to encourage an active healthy lifestyle and reentry into civilian life by aiding in physical injury recovery and assuaging heightened risks of suicide and opioid addiction among veterans. The THRIVE pilot seeks to create a model that can be replicated at other botanical gardens and nature centers.
M Shed Museum in Bristol, Image by Heather Cowper courtesy of Flickr
In a recent much-publicized study, researchers found that 120 minutes per week of contact with nature increased mental wellbeing and promoted myriad health benefits. Notably, there was no discernible difference in terms of how that time was achieved: one long excursion produced an analogous effect to many shorter bits. Applying that logic to museums suggests a different type of attendance. We generally experience cultural institutions through singular visits like a school outing, blockbuster exhibition, or long grueling days of tourism. It is therefore possible to infer that regular brief visits can achieve comparable results and satisfaction. Museums might think about this when developing and determining public programs, educational activities, or even admission prices so that a trip to the museum is less of a monumental undertaking or special treat and more of a routine part of a healthy regimen. Operating hours are another protocol ripe for reconsideration. For example, Bristol’s M Shed conducts its Art Shed classes aimed at folks with low level mental health issues on the day the building is closed to the public and some museums are setting aside early hours for quiet time or to cater to neurodiverse visitors. The Palais de Tokyo in Paris stays open until midnight—at one point a third of its visitors came after 6pm, making it a vibrant social destination on par with other nightlife options.
Libraries and Other Cultural Institutions
South Philadelphia Community Health and Literacy Center (2016), photo by Matt Wargo, courtesy of VSBA Architects & Planners
Traditional museums can also look to other cultural institutions for inspiration and guidance. Libraries, children’s museums, and science centers are trusted venues that play an instrumental role in their communities and the cognitive development of visitors. Public libraries excel at “meeting people where they are,” and serving incredibly diverse demographics (age, income, education, ethnicity, etc.). Libraries, of course, help provide visitors with myriad resources, classes, and Internet access, but, steadily, they are branching out beyond books, providing social services and counseling to address various determinants of health, including family matters, legal issues, housing insecurities, employment opportunities, substance abuse, and more. Libraries tend to be immensely democratic, non-judgmental, and, above all, free places of congregation and refuge, essentially becoming de facto community centers. The geographic dispersion of local branches across cities further contributes to their neighborhood utility. This open attitude allows for a level of engagement not possible for other city agencies or institutions. Librarians and staff are not trained, nor expected, to handle high-needs populations, so, in the past two decades, public library systems have increasingly coordinated with external organizations and hired full-time social workers. Going a step further, in 2016, Philadelphia opened a Community Health and Literacy Center as part of the city’s “21st Century Libraries Initiative.” The three-story building, designed by VSBA Architects & Planners, integrates clinic, library, and recreation functions under the same roof, developed and financed through a public-private partnership. Similarly, in Brazil, a network of hybrid art-recreation-health centers (“SESC”) dating back to the 1940s is wildly successful at the local level.
Educational activities at Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art & Storytelling, photo by Michael Palma Mir
Children’s museums, a fast-growing segment of the museum ecosystem, are another type of institution whose philosophy shapes a valuable approach to visitors. Children’s museums are well-known advocates for informal self-directed learning and discovery. They help kids develop language, literacy, independence, environmental mastery, and problem-solving skills through interactive educational exhibits and a playful atmosphere. The Sugar Hill Children’s Museum of Art and Storytelling in Harlem caters to all ages but is mainly dedicated to three-to-eight-year-olds, “driven by the growing research that draws a clear correlation between early exposure of children to the arts and increased long-term critical thinking, communication, and social skills.” If museums induce lifelong mental health benefits and demonstrate a heightened impact on the development of children, it makes sense to direct outreach to younger visitors. In a report analyzing the economic impact of museums and wellbeing, the author Daniel Fujiwara observed that one of the largest predictors of adults not attending museums wasn’t determinants like income or free time but whether their parents took them to museums during childhood. Therefore, appealing to, and involving, families produces positive ripple effects into adulthood.
Wayne McGregor | Random Dance, Thinking with the Body, Wellcome Collection (2013), courtesy Wellcome Collection CC BY-NC 4.0
The Wellcome Trust, a wealthy UK charitable foundation funding biomedical research, is similarly focusing its efforts on the younger set (ages 14-24) in this critical moment for intervention, hoping to combat the anxiety and depression afflicting approximately 400 million globally. In fact, they predict mental health will be the leading cause of death by 2030, owing, in part, to outdated understandings and treatments. Perhaps less familiar to our American readers, the Wellcome Collection in London (the Trust’s free museum and library) consistently mounts some of the city’s most intriguing exhibitions and events. Their galleries and programming promote public curiosity and understanding of science through an interdisciplinary approach, mixing medical artifacts and artworks, scientists and creatives. From topics like health and architecture to madness and modernity, the Wellcome deftly balances didactic and interactive displays as well as historical and contemporary objects, undertaken with a genuine investment in accessibility.
The above examples highlight general lessons applicable to all sorts of museums: crafting programs to meet the needs of specific visitors, maintaining long-term engagements, developing partnerships with health experts, fostering multidisciplinary collaborations, reassessing institutional operating procedures, encouraging informal learning, stimulating multiple senses, and even moving outside the gallery walls to better serve audiences.
Simone Leigh, Free People’s Medical Clinic (2014-15), courtesy Creative Time
Mental health should not be treated as a superficial fad nor limited solely to those with means. As cultural institutions, museums are in a unique position to access different demographics. As artist Simone Leigh pointed out, in relation to her Free People’s Medical Clinic (2014), a restorative project in Brooklyn commissioned by Creative Time and Weeksville Heritage Center, self-care and preventative care are often treated as a luxury, not a necessity. We should view post-pandemic reopening as an opportunity to continue normalizing conversations of mental health and incorporating programs that better serve our surrounding communities.
And, lastly, a cautionary note: social scientist and museum expert Gemma Mangione implores us to further examine and distinguish between museological and medical understandings of health, because there are many ideological similarities yet practical differences in the work of art educators and art therapists. Moreover, the collective What Would an HIV Doula Do? challenges us to humbly reflect and ask better questions when dealing with cultural production and illness. In designing programs devoted to health, institutions should be conscious of their own subjective biases and paternalism, mindful to avoid “curing” or “fixing” who or what might not necessarily be “sick” or “broken.”
Greg Barton is a researcher and curator focused on spatial politics. He holds a MS in Critical, Curatorial, and Conceptual Practices in Architecture from Columbia University GSAPP and has worked on projects for/with a number of artists, architects, activists, and nonprofit institutions, including the Canadian Centre for Architecture and Storefront for Art and Architecture. His texts have appeared in various places, most recently in The Museum is Not Enough (CCA/Sternberg Press).