Anxiety and stress are now “relieved” in museums

Anxiety and stress are now “relieved” in museums




Concept and objectives of the project
According to the American Psychological Association, stress is the physiological or psychological response to internal or external stressors. It involves changes affecting nearly every system of the body, influencing how people feel and behave. By causing these mind-body changes, it contributes directly to psychological and physiological disorder and disease and affects mental and physical health, reducing the quality of life. Anxiety is an emotion characterised by apprehension and somatic symptoms of tension in which an individual anticipates impending danger, catastrophe, or misfortune. The body often mobilises itself to meet the perceived threat: muscles become tense, breathing is faster, and the heart beats more rapidly.

The levels of psychosocial distress in society are significant, as demonstrated by the extensive use of prescribed antidepressants and the working days lost due to stress and anxiety. The Covid19 outbreak has further exacerbated this condition. It is absolutely normal to experience a wide range of emotions when dealing with a global pandemic identified as a highly stressful situation. However, active involvement in creative and cultural activities offers a wide range of benefits, such as promoting wellbeing, quality of life, and health. Moreover, as claimed by psychologists and psychiatrics, a person can be completely cured from anxiety. There are well-proven techniques that can be learned to effectively deal with this emotion and stress.

Museums around the world are part of this strategy by striving to promote wellbeing in their communities in various ways, and many of them are also willing to experiment additional strategies in order to achieve this goal.
Since 2018 Canadian family physicians can prescribe a visit to Canadian museums in order to improve physical and mental wellbeing. This year, Belgium has started a three-months pilot study experiment based on the Canadian example. Brussels doctors prescribe museum visits to treat Covid19 stress and anxiety. Five museums and a hospital are involved.

The main difficulty museums face is providing the activities necessary to relieve stress and anxiety through encountering museum objects once visitors arrive at a museum. As a matter of fact, we cannot be sure museumgoers will be able to connect and benefit from the museum objects without specific help.

The aim of the ASBA project is to solve the problem with a new approach. The brain-friendly museum (BFM) is an institution based upon the respect of human beings’ cognitive processes and emotions as well as on the protection, preservation, dissemination, and appreciation of our tangible and intangible heritage for the purposes of education, study, and enjoyment. The BFM approach encourages the collaboration between experts from different fields, and it is primarily based on psychology theories and neuroscience tools. Its objective is to improve the quality of the museum experience and mental wellbeing.
The project is unique in this field and will provide significant science-based progress well beyond the present state-of-the-art.

The first topic addressed in the BFM book (Using Psychology and Neuroscience to Improve the Museum Experience. The Brain-Friendly Museum, Routledge – in press) refers to emotions. The ASBA project focuses on stress and anxiety and is a concrete application of the BFM approach to the museum environment for the benefit of visitors. This initiative is aimed at citizens, affected by different levels of non-pathological anxiety, who want to engage themselves in cultural experiences which can relieve their emotional tension and thus improve their wellbeing. The objective is not to attempt to diagnose or treat visitors who have anxiety problems. The overall goal is to provide a calm and safe space where people:

  • can be more aware of what stress and anxiety are, and how they affect an individual;
  • have the chance to learn and practice some techniques to relieve the mental pain while looking at and learning about museum objects;
  • feel less anxious by improving their wellbeing during their museum experience.

The project is intended to be a practical aid to museums interested in wellbeing-related activities. For this reason, it proposes more than one strategy in order to give museums the chance to choose the most suitable method for them. In this regard, the selected strategies, once tested, will be presented and evaluated not in competitive terms but in a descriptive way as a guide for the interested institutions.
One of these methods (strategy based on the combination of cultural heritage and nature) is brand-new while the others are well-known (e.g., mindfulness) but not completely tested or widespread in museums, especially in Italy. Each method will be tested in two types of museums (fine arts museum and science museum) in order to promote strategies applicable in different contexts.

Each session of the four strategies is made up of four parts: the informative part, the training part based on one of the four techniques (described below) in front of the museum objects, the explanation of the museum objects, and a final debate. At the beginning and the end of each meeting, levels of anxiety are measured by means of internationally valid tests (e.g., Hamilton test) and time-tested neuroscience tools.

  1. MINDFULNESS-BASED STRATEGY. Kabat-Zinn defined mindfulness as the awareness that arises from paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment and non-judgmentally. By focusing on the breath, the idea is to cultivate attention on the body and mind as it is moment to moment, and so help with pain, both physical and emotional. As claimed by Russ Harris, mindfulness is a psychological toolkit for improving one’s health, wellbeing, and life. Mindfulness training has emerged as a powerful, evidence-based tool for enhancing psychological health. It is empirically supported as an effective intervention in a wide range of clinical disorders, including chronic pain, anxiety disorders, depression, substance abuse, and borderline personality disorder.
  2. VISUAL THINKING STRATEGIES (VTS). VTS is a learning method developed by Philip Yenawine, Director of Education at MoMA (New York) from 1983-93, and cognitive psychologist Abigail Housen. The VTS method consists of a group discussion, led by a facilitator, in front of a museum object. It is a process of construction of the meaning of the work, which is activated by asking three questions:
    – What is happening in this image?
    – What are the visual elements that can prove what you said?
    – What else can we find?
    The VTS method improves self-esteem, reduces anxiety, develops problem solving, critical thinking, the ability to work in a team, and social skills.
  3. ART THERAPY. Art therapy is based on the use of artistic activities (e.g., painting). The process of making art is a healing experience; it offers the opportunity to express oneself spontaneously. It can lead to personal fulfilment, emotional repair, and transformation. Objects made in art therapy are seen as a non-verbal means of communication to develop new insights, solve conflicts and problems and formulate new perceptions to achieve positive change, growth, and rehabilitation. Art is not a diagnostic tool but a means to cope with emotional issues that can be confusing and distressing. Art therapy is aimed at children, young people, adults, and the elderly.
  4. STRATEGY BASED ON THE COMBINATION OF NATURE AND CULTURE. There is solid evidence that contact with nature improves human health, including mood benefits (Neil et al., 2018). Walking in forest environments – which is a popular practice in Japan called shinrin-yoku – promotes lower concentrations of cortisol, lower pulse rate, lower blood pressure, greater parasympathetic nerve activity, and lower sympathetic nerve activity than do city environments (Park et al., 2010).
    The Norwegian University of Science and Technology has discovered that the appreciation of art and culture can reduce the risk of contracting anxiety and depression, and the University College London has found that museums are places where people can feel less alone.
    The positive effect of nature on human beings can be combined with the beneficial stimuli coming from the cultural heritage displayed in a museum. Naturally, this method can be adopted only by museums which are near to/in a park or a garden.

The ASBA project will also include the collection and analysis of data on anxiety related to a fifth method. The “Art Up Method”, in use since 2016, is led by a group of experts made up of art historians, psychoanalysts, and facilitators. The latter are people affected by mental distress who have attended the Art Up training course “Affects and effects of art” carried out in the last few years at the Gallerie d’Italia (Milan). The Art Up association is supported by the Municipality of Milan through the concession of an office at Casa Solidale and the collaboration with a Regional Innovative Programme for the job placement of people with mental distress.

Contact for project: Annalisa Banzi