In February 2019, the World Health Organisation (WHO) recognised the benefits of art on health after analysing more than 900 international studies. Museum prescriptions, initiated in Quebec in 2018 by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, are a remarkable additional resource to improve the mental health of vulnerable people and are guaranteed to have no side effects. The same project was recently transferred to Brussels as a test. How can museum prescriptions support mental health? How were these projects rolled out in Montreal, then in Brussels? Read on to find out!

The benefits of artwork on health

Art has therapeutic properties such as reducing stress and improving self-confidence. An increasing number of studies show that contact with works of art has a genuine biological impact on mental health. Researchers at University College London have shown that cultural outings reduce the risk of depression during a person’s lifetime. The results of this survey were published in the British Journal of Psychiatry in 2018.

Looking at a work of art activates the body’s emotional channels and stimulates the secretion of cortisol and serotonin. Both hormones contribute to well-being by reducing suffering and anxiety. Art therefore has a direct effect on our brain and produces empathy. Colour and light, two elements of works of art, also affect our sensory perception and regulate certain hormones.

Museums therefore appear to be part of the therapeutic resources available to patients and can contribute to the healing process.

Art on prescription at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

As a forerunner in well-being through art, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MBAM) can provide a specific welcome for this target group. Visitors may come with family, friends or caregivers. The project has been up and running since 1 November 2018 and was launched by Nathalie Bondil, who was MBAM Executive Director and Chief Curator at the time. A necessary partnership with the medical sector was attained through the Association of French-Speaking Physicians in Canada (MFDC), today presided by Hélène Boyer.

The MBAM is proud to be a genuine research lab and is now running a dozen-odd research projects with universities to scientifically measure how art affects health. The Museum has even appointed a full-time art therapist – this is a first!

In practice, the doctors who are members of the association are allowed to prescribe up to 50 museum visits a year for patients with depression, diabetes, or another chronic illness.

Museum visit prescriptions in Brussels

Inspired by the Quebec project, Delphine Habrou, alderman for Culture in Brussels, encouraged the introduction of the innovative Canadian initiative in Brussels. The City of Brussels supported the project with a view to placing mental health at the core of society’s concerns. Given that Delphine Habrou was formerly the President of Brugmann Hospital, one of the largest public hospitals in the Belgian capital, a partnership with the psychiatric department was struck up naturally.

A three-month pilot test ran from September 2021 in five of Brussels’ public museums: Brussels City; Fashion & Lace; Sewer; Garde-robe Manneken-Pis [the statue’s wardrobe]; and Centrale for Contemporary Art. Brugmann Hospital patients can be prescribed guided tours for individuals, and group visits are prescribed for Stress Clinic patients (part of the same hospital group).

This pilot project is part of a scientific study. Depending on the results, as yet unpublished, the project could be extended to other federal and regional museums, once again in partnership with health-related institutions and services.

In the same way that medicine or adapted physical activity sessions are prescribed, museum visit prescriptions will certainly find a positive response in other cities and perhaps influence health policies.

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Article updated on 12/08/22