Why Visit Museums? Feel Restored & Improve Your Wellbeing!
Museums of all types are good for our brain, our nervous system, and our mental wellness
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 we’re interested in. 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 and Wellbeing Research
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 that were not learning related. 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 another article, This Is Your Brain On Art, Oshin Vartanian explains that MRI studies of brains looking at art 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 were also involved.
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.
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. One article, 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 come in the form of guided tours, flyers and handouts, audio tours, wall labels, educational programs, and more.
Britain's Focus on Museums for Wellbeing
Over the past few 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 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 in Britain developed a list of five ways to wellbeing. They considered both feeling good and functioning well. Their five ways include: connect, be active, give, take notice, and keep learning.
Strategies to Boost Your Mental Wellness
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 relates 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!
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 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?
Find an object that you find pretty, pleasant, or calming. Sit for five minutes looking at only that object - it's called slow looking. 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.
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 an 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.
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. Just the frames can tell stories!
If you’re in a large museum, the usual way to focus your visit is by picking a few select galleries to visit, usually based on your previous visits or your personal interests. Change it up! Visit a gallery you’ve never been to before. Or, pick a topic you know nothing about. If you love the Impressionists, check out bronzes from Benin or textiles from Guatemala. If you enjoy 18th century American furniture, go look at 20th century artwork from Andy Warhol and Robert Rauschenberg.
Boost your mental wellness! Visit a museum!
How have museum visits benefited you?