Years ago, I lived in an apartment in Washington, DC that was a ten-minute walk from the National Mall, that strip of lawn surrounded by Smithsonian museums. This was before I became a parent, before I had a dog. Really, my only obligation was my job. The hours outside of work were mine alone, and instead of planning my nights and weekends I preferred to be spontaneous. I often found myself walking to the National Gallery of Art or the National Portrait Gallery. I liked to bring my camera and photograph the artwork and the visitors looking at the art, as well as the grand museum buildings with their palatial staircases.
Walking through the museums, I remember feeling different things: a sense of calm, disconnection from the noisy world outside, infinitude. One gallery in a museum leads to the next, seemingly endless doorways leading to endless rooms. You’re ensconced in an infinite loop of art.
I’m thinking about these museum trips because I came across an interesting study by University of Pennsylvania psychologists on art museums and mental health. The evidence shows that visits to art museums support “human flourishing,” which is a delightful phrase. These visits increase subjective well-being, result in a higher quality of life, and decrease anxiety and depression. Doctors in several countries now even prescribe visits to art museums to treat a range of conditions. I love that.
The article also identifies areas of further study. For example, why art museums in particular? There’s something called the “museum effect” which provides a clue. Research on the museum effect suggests that visitors “engage in greater reflection about themselves, their future, and broader social concerns over the course of their time in a museum.”
I love studies into why humans do the things they do. Museums are a relatively recent phenomenon, but humans have been creating art, collecting it, displaying it, and looking at it, for a very long time. My vintage print shop exists because we like to purchase art to hang our in our homes, to be surrounded by it.
But why? Viewing art must benefit us in some way, and how it benefits us is such an interesting question.
PS: Below are photos from one of my visits to the Cooper Hewitt Smithsonian Design Museum, the only Smithsonian museum in New York. If you’re in New York, I highly recommend it! Like all Smithsonian museums, entrance is free.
How do you feel when visiting art museums? Which are your favorites to visit?
All photos in this post are my own.