In Brussels, Doctors Are Literally Prescribing People Trips to Museums to Help Them Cope With Pandemic-Related Stress

The program was inspired by a similar study conducted in Quebec.

Doctors in Belgium are prescribing museum visits to allay stress and other mental maladies. (Photo by Artur Widak/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

It’s no secret that the coronavirus pandemic not only affected millions of people physically, but also had a detrimental impact on mental health. Now, doctors in Brussels are trying something new to help bolster flagging mental health: prescribing museum visits.

The scheme is part of a three-month trial carried out by doctors at Brugmann hospital, one of the largest hospitals in Brussels, to treat in-patient residents as well as other individuals suffering from stress. Those who are deemed eligible for the program will have the opportunity to visit five public art institutions across the city free of charge. The institutions include some quirkier offerings, like the Sewer Museum and Mennekin-Pis’s Wardrobe—which holds more than 1,000 costumes—as well as the Contemporary Art Center.

In 2018, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts began an initiative which Delphine Houba, the alderman in charge of culture in the Belgium capital, said inspired her to try something similar. The Quebec-based program offered patients and caregivers or family members free admission to the MMFA as an extension of the museum’s Art and Health Committee, which it founded in 2017 to study the effects of art on patients suffering from a range of conditions including eating disorders, mental illness, breast cancer, and Alzheimer’s disease.

“The Covid crisis, accentuating stress, burnout, and other pathologies, has confirmed the relevance of such a project,” Houma told the Belgium newspaper L’Echo.

A terminally ill patient visits "Late Rembrandt" at the Rijksmuseum in 2015. Photo courtesy of the Ambulance Wish Foundation.

A terminally ill patient visits “Late Rembrandt” at the Rijksmuseum in 2015. Photo courtesy of the Ambulance Wish Foundation.

Numerous studies have confirmed the benefits of art in raising patient’s spirits, even when they are confined to hospitals. The World Health Organization even operates an entire program dedicated to the study and support of arts as vital components of maintaining well-being (the WHO’s arts and health lead Christopher Bailey spoke to the Art Angle Podcast about its work last year).

When the Rijksmuseum opened a major Rembrandt show in 2019 in honor of the 350th anniversary of the artist’s death, the Dutch charity the Ambulance Wish Foundation was inundated with requests from terminally ill patients who wanted to see the works on view by the Dutch master.

The results of Brussels’s pilot program will be published in 2022.

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