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Canadian Doctors Will Soon Be Able to Prescribe Museum Visits as Treatment

An afternoon of art may offer serotonin mood boost, welcome distraction from chronic pain

Montreal doctors will soon be able to prescribe free museum visits for patients and a limited number of loved ones or caregivers (Shinya Suzuki / Flickr)
smithsonian.com

A stroll through the galleries of Quebec’s Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) places individuals face-to-face with works of art by the likes of Rembrandt, El Greco and Rodin, as well as some 43,000 artifacts ranging from Chinese ceramics to Inuit sculpture. Visiting is undoubtedly an elucidating cultural experience, but a new initiative posits that a trip to the museum is more than just intellectually stimulating: As Brendan Kelly reports for The Montreal Gazette, beginning on November 1, a select group of local physicians will be able to prescribe museum visits as treatment for an array of ailments.

“We know that art stimulates neural activity," MMFA director Nathalie Bondil tells CBC News. "What we see is that the fact that you are in contact with culture, with art, can really help your well-being."

Thanks to the campaign, members of the Montreal-based medical association Médecins francophones du Canada (MdFC) can hand out up to 50 museum prescriptions enabling patients and a limited number of friends, family and caregivers to tour the MMFA for free. Without a prescription, admission can cost as much as $23 Canadian dollars, or roughly $18 U.S. dollars.

Speaking with the Gazette’s Kelly, MdFC vice president Hélène Boyer explains that museum visits have been shown to increase levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter colloquially known as the “happy chemical” due to its mood-boosting properties. But creativity’s healing powers aren’t limited to tackling mental health issues; art therapy can also help those undergoing palliative care for severely life-threatening diseases or conditions, like cancer, or suffering from diabetes and chronic illness.

According to Boyer, the uptick in hormones associated with enjoying an afternoon of art is similar to that offered by exercise, making museum prescriptions ideal for the elderly and individuals experiencing chronic pain that prevents them from regularly engaging in physical activity.

CBC News points out that the museum visits are designed to complement, not supplant, more traditional methods. As Bondil notes, spending time with loved ones—the prescription is valid for two adults and two minors—in a peaceful environment can provide a welcome distraction.

“What is most important is to have this experience which is to help them escape from their own pain," she tells CBC. "When you enter the museum, you escape from the speed of our daily life. It's a kind of modern cathedral."

The program is the country’s first of its kind, according to the Canadian Press. It’s far from the MMFA’s first foray into art therapy, however: The institution is home to a number of art therapy-focused facilities, including a workshop, a medical consultation room and an Art Hive, which the museum’s website describes as a “creative community studio” overseen by an art therapist.

In addition, the MMFA is currently participating in 10 clinical trials designed to assess the impact of art on health. These studies encompass patients with a diverse array of medical issues, including eating disorders, breast cancer, epilepsy and Alzheimer’s.

The museum prescription pilot initiative will run for one year, CBC News reports. Doctors will make follow-up appointments with patients to gauge if the therapy has influenced their condition, and at the end of the testing window, will prepare a report detailing their findings.

“I am convinced that in the 21st century, culture will be what physical activity was for health in the 20th century,” Bondil said in a statement. “Cultural experiences will benefit health and wellness, just as engaging in sports contributes to fitness. Skeptics would do well to recall that just a hundred years ago, sports were believed to distort the body and threaten women’s fertility. Just as doctors now prescribe exercise, they will be able to prescribe a visit to the MMFA.”

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