Revitalizing Society through Museum Engagement

The International Arts + Mind Lab Center for Applied Neuroaesthetics (IAM Lab) is honored to partner with the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) for their 2024 Annual Meeting and MuseumExpo. The keynote session, Wired for the Arts: Revitalizing Society through Museum Engagement, will explore the profound nexus between arts and culture and societal health, and examine how museums can serve as powerful conduits for this vital integration. Susan Magsamen, Executive Director of the IAM Lab, will be in conversation with Renée Fleming, acclaimed singer, five-time Grammy® award winner, and arts advocate; Dr. Maria Rosario Jackson, Chair of the National Endowment for the Arts; and Terri Lee Freeman, Executive Director of the Reginald F. Lewis Museum.

The AAM recognizes the importance of wellbeing initiatives within the field for patrons and staff, emphasizing the role museums can play in promoting community health and wellbeing through their programs and collections. The AAM encourages museums to consider the diverse needs of their audiences when designing wellbeing programs, striving to ensure inclusivity and accessibility for all visitors.

Visiting museums can offer a myriad of benefits to health and wellbeing, encompassing both physical and mental health dimensions (American Alliance of Museums, 2022; Cotter & Pawelski, 2021). Museums provide opportunities for individuals to engage in leisurely activities that promote relaxation and stress reduction (Šveb Dragija & Jelinčić, 2022). The serene atmosphere within museum galleries can serve as a sanctuary from the hustle and bustle of daily life, allowing visitors to unwind and recharge mentally (Dupuy et al., 2024). Studies have shown that exposure to art and cultural artifacts can lower levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, leading to improved mood and overall well being (Kaimal et al., 2016; Law et al., 2021).

Moreover, museums play a crucial role in fostering social connections and community engagement, which are integral to mental health (Kadoyama, 2018; Weber, 2022). Whether through guided tours, workshops, or group activities, visitors have the chance to connect with like-minded individuals and share enriching experiences (Sutter et al., 2016). These social interactions not only contribute to a sense of belonging but also provide opportunities for personal growth and development (Chatterjee & Noble, 2016; Šveb Dragija & Jelinčić, 2022).

Many museums have recognized the importance of promoting health and wellbeing through specialized programs and initiatives (Camic & Chatterjee, 2013; Todd et al., 2017). For instance, some museums offer meditation and mindfulness sessions amidst their collections, providing visitors with tools to manage stress and cultivate mindfulness (Reyhani Dejkameh & Shipps, 2018; Wei et al., 2022). These programs often incorporate elements of art therapy, leveraging the therapeutic benefits of creative expression to enhance emotional resilience and self-awareness (Colbert et al., 2013; Packer, 2008; Wei & Zhong, 2022).

Furthermore, many museums have integrated time outside in nature and physical activities into their offerings to promote wellbeing. Outdoor sculpture gardens and walking tours encourage visitors to engage in moderate exercise while exploring art and nature. Research has shown that spending time in nature can improve mood, boost immune function, and reduce stress levels (Kondo et al., 2018; Hunter et al., 2019). Additionally, interactive exhibits that encourage movement and physical interaction can stimulate cognitive function and also promote physical health through playful engagement (Camic & Chatterjee, 2013; Froggett & Farrier, 2011; Mujtaba et al., 2018).

Examples of museum-based wellbeing initiatives include:

The Brooklyn Museum in Brooklyn, NY aims to create a welcoming space where visitors can nurture their physical, mental, and emotional wellbeing while exploring art and culture by hosting Wellness Wednesdays, a series of weekly programs focused on promoting health and wellbeing. These sessions offer a variety of activities designed to engage both the mind and body, drawing inspiration from the museum’s diverse collection and the surrounding community. Participants can enjoy yoga classes held in the museum’s galleries, guided meditation sessions amidst the artwork, and wellness workshops covering topics such as nutrition, self-care, and stress management. Additionally, the museum collaborates with local health and wellness practitioners to provide complementary services such as acupuncture, massage therapy, and herbal medicine consultations.

The Royal Ontario Museum in Toronto, Canada offers forest bathing experiences in partnership with local naturalists and wellness experts. Participants embark on guided walks through nearby natural spaces to immerse themselves in the healing powers of nature. Led by trained guides, these walks invite participants to engage in mindfulness practices, such as deep breathing and sensory awareness, while surrounded by the sights, sounds, and smells of the forest. The experience emphasizes the connection between humans and the natural world, promoting relaxation, stress reduction, and mental clarity.

The National Museum of India in New Delhi, India offers yoga and art therapy workshops to promote holistic wellbeing among visitors. Led by experienced instructors and art therapists, the workshops typically begin with gentle yoga exercises and breathing techniques to promote relaxation and mindfulness. Participants then engage in guided art-making activities inspired by the museum’s extensive collection of artifacts and artworks. The combination of yoga and art therapy encourages self-expression, introspection, and stress reduction, fostering a sense of inner peace and balance. These workshops offer a unique opportunity for visitors to explore the intersection of art, culture, and wellness while cultivating a deeper connection to themselves and their surroundings.

The California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco, California offers a Mindful Science program that combines mindfulness practices with scientific exploration. This program aims to promote mental wellbeing while fostering curiosity and connection with the natural world. Participants engage in guided mindfulness sessions led by experienced instructors within the museum’s exhibits, such as the aquarium, planetarium, and rainforest. These sessions incorporate mindfulness techniques, such as deep breathing and sensory awareness, to encourage present-moment awareness and relaxation. Following the mindfulness session, participants embark on a guided tour or interactive activity focused on a scientific topic related to the museum’s exhibits. For example, participants might explore the biodiversity of the rainforest, learn about the stars in the planetarium, or observe marine life in the aquarium.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, New York offers yoga classes in its galleries, allowing participants to practice yoga surrounded by works of art. These sessions often incorporate mindfulness techniques and are led by experienced yoga instructors. The museum also hosts guided mindfulness meditation sessions in select galleries, providing visitors with the opportunity to engage in contemplative practices while viewing artworks.

The British Museum in London, England offers mindfulness tours led by trained guides who use artworks and artifacts as focal points for mindfulness meditation and reflection. Participants are encouraged to engage their senses and cultivate a deeper connection with the museum’s collections.

The Getty Center in Los Angeles, California organizes guided nature walks through its gardens, providing visitors with an opportunity to connect with nature and enjoy the beauty of the surroundings. These walks often incorporate elements of mindfulness and are led by knowledgeable guides.

These examples demonstrate how museums and cultural institutions worldwide are implementing innovative programs to promote health and wellbeing through art, nature, and mindfulness. As institutions continue to evolve and diversify their offerings, they have the potential to play an increasingly significant role in promoting wellness in their communities. By embracing innovative programs and initiatives, museums can serve as valuable resources for enhancing both individual and collective wellbeing.

Image by Jennifer Bishop: Johns Hopkins Professor of Psychiatry Dr. Meg Chisolm leads medical students in a Visual Teaching Strategies session

Written by Karen Alexander, IAM Lab’s Director of Outreach and Education



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Art Therapy Nature Neuroaesthetics Wellbeing