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Forbes: What Do We Know About Doctor-Prescribed Museum Visits?

Written by Eva Amsen and published on on October 19, 2021

Doctors in Brussels are prescribing museum visits to their patients who are struggling with stress due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Museum therapy isn’t new and doctors in other places, such as Montreal, have also been prescribing visits to the local art museum as therapy. Not all programs are the same, though, but researchers have been studying whether these interventions are effective.

In 2018, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and Médecins francophones du Canada started a program that let doctors prescribe their patients with a museum visit in addition to their other treatments. They got a special “prescription pad” with 50 sheets which they could give to any of their patients to get free access to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

In June 2019, Fortune reported that participants in the Montreal program had at that point redeemed 185 of the prescriptions that had been handed out by doctors. But there doesn’t seem to have been a systematic report yet to summarize whether the system was deemed successful.

However, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts has taken part in several other health-related projects. One in particular, “Thursdays at the Museum”, has been formally documented in peer-reviewed scientific papers. In this project, 150 participants over the age of 65 took part in weekly interactive art activities at the museum. At several points during the course of the 12 weeks of the study, they answered a questionnaire about their well-being. Based on their answers, McGill University researchers determined that the art activities at the museum increased the overall mood and wellbeing of the people that took part. 

In the UK, a similar study called “Museums on Prescription” ran from 2015 to 2017. This research project also looked at the psychological wellbeing of older people who took part in organised events at a museum. For this project, the activities were offered as a 10-week series of events at seven different museums. Each museum offered something else, so it could be interactive art-making workshops or behind the scenes meetings with curators, for example. This study, too, showed a positive effect on wellbeing among people who participated in the museum activities. 

But both these studies were carefully coordinated so that people took part in organised and monitored events where they were directly engaged with other participants and the museum staff. It’s not the same as simply sending someone to a museum for free. Maybe it was the sense of being part of a group or being guided along activities that made the participants in the museum studies feel better – not necessarily the act of “being in the museum”. So it’s hard to say whether simply prescribing a museum visit will have the same effect.

Still, sending patients to a museum when they seem to need a distraction isn’t likely to harm them, even if it’s not clear whether it will work for everyone. As the vice-president of Médecins francophones du Canada, Hélène Boyer, said in an interview with CBC News at the launch of the museum prescription project in Montreal “It’s so rare in medicine that you prescribe something and you do not need to worry about all those side-effects (…).”