Today is International Museum Day (IMD). Every year since 1977, the International Council of Museums has organized IMD to raise awareness that “museums are an important means of cultural exchange, enrichment of cultures and development of mutual understanding, cooperation and peace among peoples.” In 2018 over 40,000 museums in 158 countries participated.
In recent years museums have assumed an additional role: treatment for mental health issues such as anxiety and loneliness. The concept of prescribing a social activity like visiting a museum or taking a yoga class has proven to be an effective tool in the U.K. Research shows social prescriptions give patients a mental-health boost. As a result many end up with reduced medications and fewer visits to their doctors.
The concept is being tested in Canada. In January 2019, for example, the Royal Ontario Museum allocated 5,000 sets of free passes, each valid for four people, to patients with social prescriptions to tour its exhibits. Similarly, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts introduced a new initiative that allows doctors to prescribe free admission to MMFA for patients and their companions. “Art heals” is the program’s principle.
According to Dr. Hélène Boyer, vice-president of Médecins francophones du Canada, “we’ve been prescribing exercise for our patients since the ’80s because we know exercise increases levels of cortisol and serotonin, which contribute to our well-being.” We secrete the same hormones when visiting a museum or art gallery. Primary care physician Dr. Sonali Srivastava says: “If I tell somebody verbally to go for a walk for 30 minutes, three times a week, they’re less likely to do it than if I write it down on a prescription pad.” Similarly, filling out social prescriptions makes patients take the advice seriously.
I don’t need IMD to appreciate the value of museums. In fact I often plan trips based on visiting specific ones. After reading about the opening of the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum (1997) in Santa Fe NM, I booked a three week camping holiday in that vicinity. On another vacation, we camped in southern Vermont to visit The Clark Art Institute in neighbouring Williamstown MA. Last year I flew to Saskatoon to tour the ReMai Museum of Modern Art. I was awed by its architecture, befuddled by the contemporary exhibit.
Every year I renew my memberships at the Museum of the West, the Museum of Vancouver, the Vancouver Art Gallery, and Roedde House Museum where I also volunteer. Belonging to cultural organizations enables me to drop in whenever the mood strikes or, I should say, whenever my mood needs boosting. In a bold move, the Art Gallery of Ontario recently introduced passes that provide unlimited admission to the collection and all special exhibits for a modest $35 per year. Plus anyone aged 18-25 enters for free. The aim is to make art a part of everyday life.
There are of course outstanding museums outside of North America, but my memories of many are vague. However, I recall vividly the privilege in 1987 of assisting Glen in his research in the hallowed Reading Room of the British Museum Library for his critical analysis of “The Dynasts” by Thomas Hardy. Steeped in history and architectural grandeur, the Reading Room was used by such famous figures as Dr. Sun Yat-sen (a Classical Chinese Garden in his name serves as a place for quiet contemplation in the heart of Vancouver’s Chinatown), Oscar Wilde, George Orwell, George Bernard Shaw, Mark Twain, Virginia Woolf and others. We kept good company that week.
Following is my short list of favourite museums. For information, simply click on the name.
- Art Institute Chicago
- Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto
- Canadian Museum for Human Rights, Winnipeg
- Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver
- Musical Instrument Museum, Phoenix
In the comments below, please share your favourite museums to visit for enjoyment and enlightenment or to lift your mood when you’re feeling low. ♥