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Museums as Healing Places

Musings on the mind-body health benefits of museums.

Metropolitan Museum of Art

Where do you go to get healthy? Along with gyms, spas, and farmer's markets, you might want to add museums to the list.

We usually think of museums as educational institutions - places where people go to learn and broaden their intellectual horizons. Some are also tourist attractions - one more sight to cross off the must-see list. But beyond that, research shows that museums can be restorative environments - places where people go to relax, recharge, and boost their mental and physical well-being.

What a fascinating exhibit!
Back in the 1980s, when psychology professors Rachel and Stephen Kaplan first formulated Attention Restoration Theory, they were interested in natural places, not manmade edifices filled with exhibit cases and educational signage. According to this theory, many tasks in everyday life call for directed attention, which takes a lot of mental effort. Eventually, you hit a mental wall, a state called directed attention fatigue. In that mentally exhausted state, you're prone to being distractible, irritable, impulsive, frustrated, and tired, and your performance on the task at hand is likely to suffer.

To restore your ability to focus attention, you need to shift mental gears. In the decades since the Kaplans proposed their theory, study after study has shown that one very effective way to do this is by spending time in nature. Four characteristics of natural surroundings seem to be important:

  • Fascination, or having your attention engaged in a non-directed, effortless way
  • Being away, or feeling removed from your usual routine and everyday demands
  • Extent, or being in an environment with sufficient structure and scope to occupy your mind for an extended period
  • Compatibility, or being in an environment that's a good fit for your tastes and purposes

That's where museums come in. Researcher Jan Packer at the University of Queensland in Australia has found that museums can potentially offer these properties as well:

  • Fascination, or being effortlessly drawn into all the interesting things around you
  • Being away, or viewing the museum as a place to escape from everyday demands and lose yourself in a new world
  • Extent, or finding plenty of things to keep your mind occupied for a while
  • Compatibility, or seeking out exhibits that satisfy your personal interests and needs

Taking the curated cure
In short, a walk through the Smithsonian can be a day at the beach, psychologically speaking. Of course, that partly depends on how you approach the experience. If you attack it like an endurance race, you're likely to come out more exhausted than you went in. But if you give yourself a chance to wander around at leisurely pace - reveling in art, marveling at science, or immersing yourself in distant times and places - you may find yourself breathing a sigh of relief.

In a 2008 study by Packer, 60 visitors to the Queensland Museum participated in interviews about their experiences there. Fifty-seven percent mentioned benefits related to restored attention, such as relaxation, peace, tranquility, and reflection.

Frequent museum-goers are more likely to seek restorative experiences than occasional visitors. It may be that familiarity lays the groundwork for effortless attention. Or it may be that those who feel relaxed and revived after a museum visit are more likely to return. Probably it's a little of both.

You belong in a museum
Museums, like museum-goers, come in all shapes and sizes. To get the most out of your visit, it helps to pick a museum that offers the kinds of experiences you find personally rewarding. Research at the Smithsonian Institution has identified four main types of experiences that museum visitors cite as being most satisfying to them:

  • Object experiences, which involve seeing rare, valuable, or beautiful things
  • Cognitive experiences, which involve gaining knowledge or enriching understanding
  • Introspective experiences, which involve imagining other times and places or reflecting on the meaning of events
  • Social experiences, which involve interacting with others or watching children learn

Most museums offer a mix of all or most of these experiences. However, object experiences are often dominant at art galleries, cognitive experiences at science museums, introspective experiences at history museums, and social experiences at children's museums.

No matter what your inclinations and interests, there's a museum out there for you. It's a pleasant way to while away a lazy afternoon. And the mind-body health benefits of a relaxing museum visit may last long after you walk through the exit doors.

Linda Wasmer Andrews' favorite museums include the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington, and the Dali Museum in St. Petersburg, Florida. She's a freelance writer specializing in health, psychology, and the mind/body connection.

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