Museotherapy – the museum as a prescription

Una Meistere


An interview with Stephen Legari, art therapist at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

Lately we’ve been hearing more and more about the social role of museums and the need to redefine this role. It has become manifold, and now includes finding the museum’s place in a post-pandemic world amid the new global challenges faced today, as well as expounding, in the broadest of contexts, on the relationship between museums, art, and the viewer (without forgetting about the creators of the art itself). The museum of today must be a space that not only enriches, educates, documents and serves as a repository of collective cultural memory, but it must also, in equal measure, be aware of and develop the therapeutic function of art (an unquestionably intrinsic aspect of art since its inception), which also includes the elements of display and environment. Today’s museum must also put forward, as an inseparable mark of its identity, the ability to be a platform for a new and synergistic approach to issues of public mental health, a concern both personal and collective, and which this last year and a half of pandemic reality has acutely brought to the forefront – or more precisely, has blown-up into stark and harsh closeup.

For several years, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) has been a flagship in this niche. Created in 2016, the Michel de la Cheneliere International Atelier for Education and Art Therapy, the largest educational facility of any North American art museum and with a total area of more than 3,500 m2, has allowed the MMFA to expand its initiatives in the fields of wellness, healthcare and clinical research. The MMFA is also one of the first museums to develop new therapeutic treatments combining art experiences with a therapeutic approach. Moreover, the MMFA is also the first art museum in the world to have its own art therapist, Stephen Legari, who has been working full-time at the museum since 2017, developing and overseeing art therapy projects.

Stephen Legari

In collaboration with art therapists, health professionals, and academic researchers, and through participation in and the initiation of a series of pilot projects, the MMFA has become a genuine research laboratory for the scientific evaluation of the impact of the arts on well-being. These projects cover a broad range of societal groups, and include studies on: the impact of museum visits and workshops on people with eating disorders (in collaboration with Concordia University and Douglas University of Mental Health); the impact of art therapy on breast cancer patients and survivors (in collaboration with the Quebec Breast Cancer Foundation and the University of Quebec Abitibi-Temiscamingue); the (neuro)physiological impact of viewing works of art and artistic creativity on people with autism spectrum disorders; the impact of museum visits on patients with cardiac arrhythmia (in collaboration with the Montreal Heart Institute); and a quantitative study on the impact of museum visits on people with Alzheimer’s disease (in collaboration with McGill University and the Alzheimer Society of Montreal), among others.

The MMFA also has a separate Art and Health Advisory Committee, with 16 experts in health and wellness, art therapy, research and the arts.

What is museum therapy? Can a museum visit be considered therapeutic? What is the role of museums in the collective healthcare system? How can our interactions with works of art, whether they be shared or solitary, positively impact our health? These are just a few of the questions that posed to MMFA art therapist Stephen Legari during the following conversation. Legari is a licensed psychotherapist, holds a masters in arts Creative Arts Therapies, and a masters in science, applied in Couple and Family Therapy.

What is museotherapy, or in other words, museum-based art therapy? And based on your experience, what is the role of the museum in healthcare?

Well, I guess I would preface that by just sharing a bit about how art therapy is contextualised in Canada, but I think it has a similar definition or context worldwide. Art therapists use the visual arts and different practices in psychotherapy to help their clients/groups/families deal with different kinds of problems, including mental health problems, physical problems, and social problems. The part we speak about the most is the impact of social isolation and how museums and museum art therapy can be a beneficial modality. Art therapists will typically use a whole range of different materials they offer their clients to externalise what they are experiencing – to give a visual voice to their internal world. And it's often a very powerful experience that goes beyond cognition and beyond words.

Museum art therapy picks up that practice and brings it, in our case, into the fine art museum context. And we add the inclusion of the museum’s collection to that format. The practices of looking, reflecting, projecting, and connecting through experiences with the fine arts become part of the journey that later leads into making and reflection and, hopefully, the connecting piece, which we really try to emphasise.

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) has benefited from a number of different practices that we saw in various museums worldwide. Health-based practices of museums are still just gaining attention, but I would like to say that it’s not new. People have been using the fine arts and museums, both in formal and informal ways, for many years, even generations.

There is a question that I feel compelled to ask everyone in that context: When you go to a museum, do you derive a personal benefit? Do you encounter the work only intellectually, or do you leave the museum feeling changed in some way? It is a question that we can pose to anyone – a doctor, a museum patron, or a family who has never before visited the museum.

At the MMFA, the formal initiative to use museum resources for the well-being of the public goes back a little more than 20 years. At the time, the Department of Education and Social Engagement (now the Division of Education and Wellness) embarked on a social commitment to promote education, inclusion, accessibility and wellness in partnership with clinical institutions, social services, and organisations representing vulnerable people. And like a lot of museums, we asked ourselves – who are the people who aren’t coming to the museum? And why aren’t they? How do we reach them? How do we change the perception of museums as being institutions for the elite, for the rich? How do we reach the communities that surround the museum? What are the themes that are going to be most important to our participants? What say will our participants have regarding how this project evolves? What other health care workers and educators need to be part of that team, to support that group?

By including our community and clinical partners in the design of museotherapy activities, we ensure the benefit of collective expertise both in the museum and in healthcare. And as we found out from these first pilot projects, this is the model that is able to be adapted to many different settings and many different partners. That’s because it includes the museum, the collection, the humanist stance of welcoming people as much as possible, and it removes the label of “patient”, removes labels from people who are marginalised, and invites them to be participants, lovers of art, and having a say in that journey. And then we reach the point at which art therapists can not only start imagining bringing a group to the museum, but even realise the idea that therapists are employees of the museum – such as myself.

Our therapeutic and well-being projects have become varied over these years to serve a great number of different sectors of the public. Some of our groups have consisted of: cancer survivors; people with eating disorders, autism spectrum disorder, and/or intellectual challenges; people suffering from long-term illnesses, language and sensory disorders, and/or mental health issues; the elderly; and people who are socially isolated.

You have also developed a special “the museum as a prescription” programme for physicians.  Could you elaborate a bit more on this?

Our museum prescription programme was, again, born out of relationships that we cultivated locally – e.g. interest and participation from local healthcare providers – as well as from what was happening in museums in other parts of the world. We were looking at the development of what is sometimes called “heritage prescribing” or “social prescribing”. We see this particularly in the UK, where they have collected good data on the practice.

Doctors, family doctors particularly, were increasingly noticing that there was a large percentage of people presenting with problems related to social isolation. They were not connected with their community, perhaps not even connected with their family; they were living alone, or their families were isolated from larger communities. And as people developed other illnesses, that compounded the sense of social isolation. So doctors started using social prescribing schemes, like – let’s get you connected to a gardening group, or a dance group, or a walk around the city; let’s get you involved with volunteer work, etc. And then there are researchers like Helen Chatterjee [Professor of Biology, Genetics, Evolution & Environment at the University College London* – ed.], who looked at the question of – What if we target specifically heritage environments? Let’s see what happens when we have whole groups taking a social prescription to go to a museum, or some other kind of cultural outing. And that’s where we started to get good data on the positive impacts being felt by different groups and decreasing the numbers of people experiencing symptoms of social isolation.

So we looked to that, and we also had the benefit of having good relationships with doctors who had been associated with our projects that had already been in development for many years. When you have a psychiatrist, a psychologist, a speech therapist, a nurse, and a psycho-educator, all of whom are thinking that this is a novel idea with potential – and in many cases, are already participating in these projects themselves – you start to build up a trust base. And with that trust we attracted the interest of an association of family doctors in Quebec and across Canada. These doctors invited various representatives from our museum to present to them what’s going on with these projects, because they were interested in finding out what potential health benefits their patients could receive from encounters with the arts. They wanted to know – What else can we add to our toolbox as physicians?

From there, we had the opportunity to do a couple of exhibitions at their annual conferences. I myself worked with a group of patients (former patients, actually – it’s a model called “patient partner” in which patients who have been in the healthcare system themselves go back and volunteer in the healthcare system to help change it). We did some museum-based art therapy workshops to produce artwork – so the patients could have their voice heard through their art – and we installed it at a physicians’ colloquium. From there, this organic relationship began to develop, and we approached doctors and asked them if they’d be interested in pursuing a pilot project in “museum prescription”. We told them what we do at the museum, and asked if they thought if any of these activities would benefit their patients. And we gave them options in what they could try, including autonomous visits to galleries, accessing major exhibitions, coming alone, coming with a partner, coming with family, etc.

We also have a number of accessible activities that are targeted towards families, and others that are targeted towards individuals who are socially isolated. We actually have a studio [Art Hive – ed.] dedicated to social inclusion.

We got a very good response in our pilot phase, and we’re getting ready to launch a research project that will follow a handful of doctors participating in it the project with their patients, so that we can get better data. But then we had this thing called the pandemic. “Museum prescription” cannot be offered in its full form at the moment, but it is an initiative that will definitely return when the museum is able to resume all activities.

The MMFA has participated in many recent scientific research programmes that scientifically measure the impact of art on well-being. What happens in the human brain when we look at art?

I will not pretend to be a neuroscientist. My particular interest is mostly in qualitative research. I want to know more about the lived experience, the phenomenology of my participant experience. We have some mixed-method studies as well, and our department at the MMFA is currently developing relationships with neuroscientists who are particularly interested in this question. What we observe, and what I believe is happening when the circumstances are sufficient (for me, sufficient means the participants feel safe in that space) and the group has experienced cohesion (we work primarily with groups when we're doing art therapy), is that there emerges a therapeutic alliance with the therapist, as well as a therapeutic alliance with the environment, and that includes the artwork. A number of different phenomena can be observed that I think are related to what’s happening in the brain. People often describe flow states – qualitatively, they will describe feeling that they have stepped outside of time, they have stepped outside of worry, they have stepped outside of preoccupation with their symptoms, family concerns, job, etc. These flow states are often described particularly in relation with the creative part of art therapy. Experiences of empathy are also frequently described. We’re thinking that perhaps the limbic system is being impacted as well – perhaps a pacification of stress hormones is happening, a potential pacification of trigger responses related to previous trauma. And there’s also the opportunity for introspection, connection, exploration, and projection. People describe this not only within the creative part of the therapy, but also just from having contact with the fine arts.

If you imagine yourself standing with seven other people in front of an artwork, and the emphasis is less on the classical teaching of what the fine arts are, but more on listening to the felt and lived experience of each participant, you have this collective experience wherein each person has the opportunity to feel validated, the opportunity to take risks socially, and to have their experience mirrored back to them by other participants as well. If you’re working, for instance, with a group of women who have survived breast cancer, or are even still going through treatment, such as we’ve done a number of times, that resonance of lived experience helps the participants combat the feelings of isolation related to their illness and other situations in their life.

So that’s what I’m imagining is happening in the brain. But we also have an other aspect that is happening in the brain that is equally important, and that is stimulation. This year we did some online art therapy with adults who were confined at home due to the pandemic, as well as with older adults battling mental health problems and/or living with dementia. Through encounters with art, we’re introducing the potential to capitalise on neuroplasticity even in the smallest of ways, and which is enhanced by social connection. The stimulated experience of being presented with something new – and the memories or associations that it elicits, and how those memories and associations are then shared or diversified throughout the group – is always an interesting observation. In our online art therapy model, we choose artworks from our collection, share them on the screen, and then try to mentally stimulate our participants to imagine (an important activity in itself, particularly for people who have experienced trauma, such as PTSD, and who have difficulty with imagined states), to fantasize, to dream, and to stay in that realm of activity. I think that the visual arts are really an opportune catalyst for inviting people into that reflective state together. Because you just allow yourself to be able to travel visually into that domain, into that image.

How do you choose the artworks you work with during those sessions?

There are different approaches to using the artworks. The most classic, if you will, is to choose artwork based on a theme, and the themes can be co-created with our partners. What are the objectives for the participants? If they are healthcare goals, what kind of artworks are going to potentially resonate with them the most? We settle on a series of themes to be presented, and they can span across galleries. If we’re working on site, we also take mobility into consideration – for example, if we’re working with people who have limited mobility, the choice of artworks might be constrained by which galleries are most proximate to the studio we’re working in and our options in exploiting the resources of that particular gallery. When working virtually, we obviously have a lot of flexibility.

If we’re focusing more on positive emotions – on delight, on wonderment – there are many different directions that artworks can take us, both historically and through contemporary art. The other approaches favour the participants choosing the artwork. And that can be done in a variety of ways – you can enter a gallery and provide a series of sort of semi-open prompts, and ask the participants to choose the artwork that relates closest to that prompt for them. And then we can explore that artwork together, collectively.

This circles back to the empowerment model as well. If the situation is sufficient, what kind of risks or what kind of opportunities can our participants take? And it also depends on the frequency with which we’re seeing people. Sometimes one group will come monthly, and in the meantime we have other groups that come weekly, say, for a series of 10 or 12 weeks. And those choices will differ based on that frequency as well, because when you’re seeing people more frequently, the choices that you make can evolve more spontaneously. Much as in a therapy session, when you would say: These are the themes we discussed last week; what’s present for you this week? A theme can be, for instance, really focusing on the body, if that was the leading issue that had come up in the group in the previous week. Then we decide which artworks to choose for the next week to either continue on that theme, or instead, invite them onto another level of reflection based on other themes that they’ve been touching upon. In that case, the approach is to really follow along with the group, and allow that to inform the choices that are made. There are also differences in how a curator might choose an artwork, how an educator might choose an artwork, and how an art therapist might choose an artwork. Of course, they might all choose the same one, but they’re entering through different vectors as they individually contemplate what that specific artwork may elicit.

Many of my choices are almost always based on the anticipation that this is going to be a stimulating point – at a minimum, a point of discussion – but perhaps a point of feeling as well. It could be figurative art or abstract art, and executed in any number of different mediums.

MMFA has participated in studies on the effects of art therapy in breast cancer patients and survivors. If we look back at art history, death is consciously or unconsciously always present in art, and perhaps this is one of the reasons why art is so powerful. At the same time, to what extent can confrontation with existential issues through art be therapeutic in such cases?

There are definitely links that are sometimes made with existential themes and existential explorations of different artists. Again, as opposed to, let’s say, prescribing an artwork to invite the participants to confront a difficult theme, we might see what is evolving through the series of being together and say: these existential themes are showing up again and again; let’s see where the group would like to go around these themes. It may also be that existential dread is part of the daily life of somebody experiencing illness, and what they will benefit most from is avoiding such themes for a few hours. Leaving those constant reminders of mortality behind and stepping more into a domain of wonderment. Art therapists who work in palliative care tell me that often when a patient arrives to hospice and they choose to do some kind of art therapy, they have been almost constantly dealing with issues related to their lives soon coming to an end, and often choose to put those themes aside for a few hours – and let in other kinds of thoughts and other kinds of images, so as to actually create something new as they face their mortality.

You also work with people with autism spectrum disorder. This is a growing problem in the world today. Children and adults suffering from this disorder risk social isolation, anxiety, bullying, loneliness. How can art help improve the lives of neuroatypical people and their families?

In collaboration with two other museums that are part of a network of French and American museums, we recently published a guide based on different programmes and practices that each museum had implemented over years of trial and collaboration. Again, I’ll come back to the theme of social inclusion being one of the most valuable contributors to working with many populations, including individuals on the autism spectrum.

So you have the opportunity to create spaces that are inclusive, where people feel welcome and included, and we have the opportunity to learn about different ways of looking at art, which is always of interest to art history and the fine art museum anyway. But here you have these different points of entry to the significance of art. And if one of the principal challenges between, let’s call them neurotypicals and neuroatypicals, is to develop different modes of collaborative communication, you then have art as a potential bridge to find common themes of interest. And this is where, again, I feel that the art that’s on the wall is such a valuable resource because it’s something that doesn’t demand that you read my body language, or that I read your body language, or that we pick up or don’t pick up on all these cues –  all we do is look at something together and try to find this third thing that we can enter.

And the museum is also well-placed to welcome families, which is a primary motivation for people on the spectrum – to spend time with family and spend time with the people that they feel closest to and feel best around and feel best understood by. So it’s not only programmes for schools and for community organisations or for referring psychologists, but to imagine these spaces as responding to neurodivergent needs. This could entail identifying which spaces have the least amount of sensory impact, whether it’s lighting or sound – museums can be very quiet spaces, very welcoming spaces, or they can be quite busy. We needn’t assume that it’s the museum’s art that is the destination for the family that day, but actually just the fact that it’s a beautiful place to be together. So we see the museum as a conservator of art and objects, but also as a public institution and a hub that people find accessible and available to them. These are some of the different ways that we’ve worked with people on the autism spectrum. We’ve worked with people who have different degrees of need of support on the spectrum – from a lot of support to almost complete independence.

We did a study [initiated by neurobiological researcher Bruno Wicker in 2017- ed.] using eye-tracking technology to better understand the centres of interest in adults with high-functioning autism, and found important differences compared to their neurotypical counterparts. The forthcoming publication will report the findings, which will hopefully help everyone better understand the different perceptual experience of adults with ASD and the emotional mechanisms that inform their experience. We found a lot of diversity among people on the spectrum regarding what their eyes are drawn to and what kind of information they tend to look at, meaning that different kinds of viewers have distinct specialisations. They can even teach us about re-experiencing the art that we take for granted in our own museums.

Could you elaborate on these specific differences in perception?

It depends on the individual. When the studies will be published, I’ll be very happy to share all of it, but the first parcel of information from the studies that I found very valuable was that for some individuals, the eye clusters around areas of information that, to most people, might not necessarily be the most obvious source of information. People with ASD have a huge perception for detail and and a greater aptitude for exploring the finer details in an artwork than, say, a neurotypical person, who usually focuses on something else at first.

For what length of time are people exposed to one artwork during the art therapy session, be it group or individual therapy?

It depends on the energy of the group. I’ve been working virtually for the past year and more, and I may, say, prepare a virtual visit that includes five to seven artworks. But depending on the group, on their needs, tolerance and interests, we may only get through two – because there might be so much collective interest around a given artwork, as well as things that I could not have predicted. Anytime you present an artwork to a group, it’s an offer, it’s an invitation. And I’m there to receive their interest and their rejection, their emotions and their stories. Wherever they need to go in that commonality or that diversity, like – This doesn’t speak to me at all, versus This is my favourite thing we’ve seen all day. The time you spend with a given artwork can be five minutes or it can be 15 minutes, it can be longer or it can be shorter. There may be very little energy around a given artwork and we’ll just move on. And when we’re working in this way we’re fortunate to have, if you will, this palette of fine arts at our disposal with which to capture their interest in other areas. It could be a colour, it could be an era, it can be a movement, it can be a subject, a word, or a symbol. It’s stepping into the unknown together, and seeing what that produces.

There are other activities that can be therapeutic but that aren’t necessarily art therapy. The slow art movement, for instance – the slow looking movement in which we invite and even challenge people to spend more time with each artwork because we know that most people have a tendency to consume images very quickly. So we invite them to spend a minimum of five minutes with an artwork and see what that feels like, and then see what changes in their perception and in their observing. What are they noticing, certainly on a visual level, but what are they also noticing in terms of their own felt experience? What are they noticing in themselves? It is taking a more mindful or meditative or reflective stance? What does that give us as we spend more time with the artwork? Does it positively impact us? Are we noticing that we’re feeling anxious and need to move on? How does the art help us deal with that restlessness?

There are situations in which art could make us suffer as well – it could make us feel angry and sad, and fearful. Do people “see themselves” in works of art?

Almost all the time. There is a seemingly inexhaustible resource of people finding their stories in art.

Sometimes they find very traumatic stories. Sometimes they find very simple, almost benign stories. Like, That room reminds me of my room, etc. Again, if we want to imagine, you know, what do we know about mirror neurons? What do we know about the firing of stimulation in the brain during observation of something that we’re not actually doing? How is that activity feeding back into our neurological experience? Again, those are questions for the experts. You know, if we’re going to look at a series of portraits or self portraits, we may find ourselves through that portraiture, but it is much, much more complex than that. And people find themselves in the most complex, contemporary, simple, or colourful art. And that can change from day to day as well. But there is something that happens in that moment when they see something of their own lived experience echoed back through them. And I would say that the artist would probably like to know that they’ve done their job in that moment as well. That their art has reached through time and through materials to find an echo within somebody in a different time and place – reverberating with it.

To what extent is the artist’s own story important in those experiences? The technique in which they worked, the period in which they lived, the context in which they created the particular work?

Again, it depends on the composition of the group. The learning experience itself is a wonderful experience. If I’m working with a guide or an educator, people feel quite fortunate to be given that exclusive time, that shared knowledge, and that shared point of entry with the artwork. In other cases, because I’m not an art historian and I’m not a guide, I tend to de-emphasise the historical information. I will always provide information on the artist, the period, the materials and the date, and if I have knowledge of a project, perhaps some context. For example, this afternoon we’re going to look at some Matisse works and I’m particularly drawn to the theme of how do artists who are encountering their own limitations overcome that difficulty through the help of their own artistic process. Matisse encountered illness – chronic illness towards the end of his life – and we tend to look at it more formally, like, Oh, he moved more towards paper cuts and gouache... But I like to perceive it as him continuing to move towards health, because he allowed his creative process to change and be changed by that. That is a theme that I’m always interested in – the connection between an artist’s story regarding their health journey and how that could resonate with our participants.

It’s very difficult to teach another person how to look at something. What would be your advice as an art therapist working at a museum?

I would never adopt a posture of thinking that I could teach someone how to look at art. I like to think that I help to create a space where people can allow the way they look at things to change. That it can deepen – that they can develop deeper capacities of curiosity regarding their own selections, that they can experience empathy in seeing how others look at art. This last point is particularly one that I would emphasise – when you’re in the presence of others looking and reflecting on what they’re seeing, it draws your attention towards those details or towards those reflections. And I believe that it changes the way that we look at art as well. But there is also a correlation to the duration of time spent looking at art – the more time we spend looking, the more that process and experience of looking will change.

Do you have any data on what percentage of people who participated in MMFA therapy sessions have later returned just as regular museum-goers and not part of a therapeutic group? I imagine that for some of them, the art therapy session was also their first encounter with the museum.

I will use the metaphor that I’ve used before – the museum has many points of entry; it has many different doors. And when you enter through the front door and find the ticket booth, you find a very classic museum experience. When you enter through the educational door, or through the door for school groups, you will develop a different kind of relationship with the museum. Sometimes that becomes your primary point of reference since it gives you more of a sense of community. For instance, I have participated in the community here rather than as a tourist or an art lover, or someone who’s just curious.

The museum isn’t pretending to replace a clinical experience. It’s an ally – a creative ally with other healthcare domains. But as a form of after-care for every participant, I provide them with a menu of opportunities regarding how they can access the museum on their own and with their families. Those can be tickets to shows, or letting them know about the community studio. We always see that there’s at least something that has captured their attention.

Often times people participating in our groups will say that they are returning to the museum for the first time in a while. Or they say they’ve only ever come for a specific exhibition and haven’t spent time in the permanent collections. In our groups we spend a lot of time in the permanent collections. So their relationship to the museum has changed based on that point of entry. We’re very fortunate to have a large museum – we have five pavilions spread across a large campus, and just by picking an artwork and a theme, we may be introducing people to parts of the museum they never knew existed. If someone either discovers something new or comes back through a different door, I feel that we’ve done our job.

The pandemic has changed, or will change, people’s relationships, priorities, interests, daily habits, lifestyles, etc. – not to mention the huge mental health crisis we are already experiencing in many parts of the world. How will the museum and its institutional role change in our post-pandemic society?

You’re touching upon perhaps the most urgent question for museums right now, one we are already asking ourselves – What is our social role? That question has been explored through many different lenses, through questions of inclusivity and diversity. In Canada, for instance, we have really important initiatives with regard to what we call decolonisation, the representation on the walls and the galleries, the traditions around conservation and collecting.

I’ve been working with a handful of colleagues from different museums, mostly in the United States, in asking ourselves, do museums have the opportunity to be ready and informed through, let’s say, a trauma-aware lens? In our different departments we do lots of continuing education – we learn more about the artists and the exhibitions that we’re doing. We learn more about the societal groups that we’re working with, whether it’s people on the autism spectrum or the needs of older adults. This continuing education is ongoing and it comes in different forms – experts, educational offerings – and the question that we’re asking is, can we include psychological training? Not in order to become therapists per se, but in terms of having the different teams in our museums undergo training in fundamental or foundational understanding of how trauma impacts the body, the community, and the individual. How could this inform our own best practices in recreating, once again, museums as potentially safe places for people to go to renew, to rediscover themselves?

One of the very straightforward opportunities for museums is to help repair the damage to our attention spans that we’ve experienced in becoming “virtual citizens” connected through a facsimile of experience. Re-experiencing art objects (we can also talk about science museums and natural history museums here) in real life gives us the opportunity for some kind of a reset. That’s one of the most immediate things that we can do, and that’s what we were doing anyway.

Our teams need access to information about how the pandemic has affected us on a general level. What does a generally traumatised population look like? What are the cues we should pay attention to? How do we change our regard, our welcome, our presence? And also, how do those same tools change the way that museum professionals help take care of each other?

Museums have traditionally participated in an accelerated, competitive and relentless state of innovation – for survival and to become exceptional. And this has produced some of the most extraordinary examples (my programme included) of what museums can do. Now there’s an opportunity for us to maybe explore what slowing down can look like, and how it can positively impact both the people visiting the museum and the people who are going to be there every day, working in it. That’s another opportunity in terms of thinking of therapeutics. It is not only about the public – it must also offer an opportunity for those charged with the museum’s security, its guidance, its direction, its facilitation, and its mediation. Those people must also have an opportunity to be changed.

It is interesting that medicine and art have the same root. They both originate from magic. Hippocrates referred to medicine as a technical “art”.

Indeed. It wasn’t so long ago that the humanities were woven into medical training and medical knowledge. At some point we decided that we would split the story from the intervention. But I think there was a lot of movement on both sides of that road to rediscovering each other. And that the arts, the humanities, and medicine have deep potential to benefit each other. Doctors are hurting too, healthcare professionals are suffering. I think that’s the part that the cultural sector, our cultural institutions, if you will, can do – remind people of who they have been, and invite them to ask themselves who they want to become.

We have to had to redefine or remember what is pleasure during this time. As we’re talking about all the complexity of different kinds of problems people encounter and how the arts can help, let’s not forget that the arts are deeply connected to joy and pleasure as well. And that we urgently need those experiences to be included with everything else that we are doing in our lives.

According to some scientific studies, creating art has been linked to an increase in dopamine, a chemical related to feelings of love, pleasure and desire. Art can even help mimic the physical sensation of falling in love. To wrap it all up – why is communication through art so special?

Communication through art allows us to travel across bridges where verbal and other forms of language might be limited. Art also has the capacity to hold complexity in a way that the words that I’m speaking now do not. The rendering of an image, the making of a line, the making of a collage, or giving shape to something – they all have the opportunity to hold a number of different meanings concurrently. Whereas the words that I’m trying to carefully choose in this moment have a more linear way of communicating an idea. And for somebody who is suffering – as we all are, it is a part of being human – there is often a sense of relief that that complexity can be transmitted. Whereas before, one may have always felt limited by trying to explain what’s going on, art can exist outside of the person while also still belonging to the person in that complexity.

*Helen J.Chatterjee's museological research investigates the value of cultural encounters to health, wellbeing and education. Helen has published numerous journal articles in this area and three books: Touch in Museums (2008; Ashgate), Museums, Health and Well-being (2013; Ashgate) and Engaging the Senses: Object-Based Learning in Higher Education (2015; Routledge); she works with numerous museum partners as well as health and social care organisations. In 2015 Helen established the National Alliance for Museums, Health and Wellbeing (funded by Arts Council England).

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