Museums and Wellbeing

Vaidehi Savnal

Museums are uniquely positioned to help promote a sense of personal wellbeing. They are ultimately spaces of reflection that move a visitor to look beyond the mundane.

Yes, these are tough times we live in; something that after a long time, the entire world is dealing with as a whole. This crisis doesn’t concern a person or a community or a country but all of humanity and it’s alright to feel overwhelmed. Too often we dismiss the impact that the world around has on our sense of wellbeing, saying that it is but a matter of perspective and one needs to be strong and face it all. We bury our anxieties under a veil of imperviousness and move on with our lives. Needless to say, these anxieties fester and snowball into something larger. Instead, what if one were to take a step back and decide to tackle the issue of mental health and wellbeing head on?

Museums are uniquely positioned to help promote a sense of personal wellbeing. The stories that unfold as you go along speak about the life and times of different people. Some stories of human endeavour are inherently positive, instilling a sense of wonder or pride, and may even inspire creativity. Others may harken back to times of distress which can serve as a coping strategy for some. They are ultimately spaces of reflection that move a visitor to look beyond the mundane.

Art as a reflection of the mind

“I cannot get rid of my illnesses, for there is a lot in my art that exists only because of them,” wrote Edvard Munch, celebrated Norwegian painter. Painter of the famed ‘The Scream’, he wrote extensively documenting his condition, “I was walking along the road with two of my friends. Then the sun set. The sky suddenly turned into blood, and I felt something akin to a touch of melancholy. I stood still, leaned against the railing, dead tired. Above the blue black fjord and city hung clouds of dripping, rippling blood. My friends went on and again I stood, frightened with an open wound in my breast. A great scream pierced through nature.” The artist’s family was predisposed to physical and mental health concerns and the artist himself suffered a mental breakdown. To compound this was the external stressor when his works were confiscated by the Nazi regime, labelling them as degenerate.

‘The Scream’ is easily one of Munch’s most famous and also immediately recognisable amongst Expressionist works. It is widely interpreted as expressing the universal anxiety of modern man , a theme so easily relatable to people that it spawned generations of interpretations in popular culture. That is the power that a single object can hold, in that it demystifies and destigmatises the quagmire that can be the human condition allowing for a modicum of acceptance and expression.

Van Gogh in his letters mentions, “I am unable to describe exactly what is the matter with me; now and then there are horrible fits of anxiety, apparently without cause, or otherwise a feeling of emptiness and fatigue in the head…and at times I have attacks of melancholy and of atrocious remorse” . It was during his time in psychiatric care in which he had voluntarily committed himself that he painted some of his most prolific work including the ‘Starry Night’. The ‘Starry Night’ stands out as the only night time scene in this series. In a letter to his brother Theo, he muses that just as one would take a train to travel the Earth, it takes death to travel to the stars. While various art historians attribute this work to a feeling of intense religious fervour and the metaphor of needing to look beyond towards a greater power, still others consider it his interpretation of astronomical phenomena that he was witness to, perhaps this was his way of looking past the impermanence and strains of the world he lived in, to a more constant beacon and anchoring himself in hope.

And closer home we have the Edict no. IX of Emperor Ashoka at the CSMVS that stands as the embodiment of the enduring tale of a man who was emotionally so deeply wounded by his acts of aggression that he turned his life around in an instant, heralding a world that offered respect for all life, equality to all individuals, tolerance towards different beliefs, relief from the rigors of superstition and the promise of a better life. The translated inscription reads,

King Devanampriya Priyadars in (title of the king Ashoka) speaks thus. Men perform various ceremonies during illness, at the marriage of a son or a daughter, at the birth of a child, (and) when setting out on a journey; on these and other such (occasions) men perform many ceremonies.

But in such (cases) mothers and wives perform many and various trifling and useless ceremonies. Now, ceremonies should certainly be performed.

But these (ceremonies) bear little fruit indeed.

The following, however, bears much fruit indeed, viz. the practice of morality. The following (are included), in this (viz.) proper courtesy to slaves and servants, reverence to elders, gentleness to animals, (and) liberality to Brahmanas and Shramanas; these and other such (virtues) are called the practice of morality.

Therefore a father, or a son…

Looking at the stories of these people, creators of some of the world’s most iconic art and historic objects, it makes one relook at how one viewed their works before. Their own circumstances, the society they lived in, belief systems that surrounded them, their desire to voice their thoughts and express themselves. Dwelling on these stories puts into perspective one’s own journey and in a sense, helps one to find one’s place in the world today.

Engaging with art, facilitates the process of self-discovery. Whether it is the process of creating art or just observing an art object, one finds themselves dipping into areas of their consciousness that perhaps, may have been previously untapped. It leads one to contemplate all manner of things and opens up a dialogue with oneself. It isn’t always easy, putting things into words. Expressing oneself through art helps to channelise energy and bring about a greater amount of focus. It enables the release of complex emotions and can buoy one with a feeling of accomplishment. Over time, we have come to appreciate the power that museum objects have, to unlock deep emotions, allowing one to negotiate feelings of sorrow and loss, memory and hope and arrive at a sense of actualisation.

The museum as its objects

Museum objects in particular, have tremendous capacity to be a source of introspection and reflection. The form of objects themselves draw a viewer in, urging one to contemplate just how a sculptor carved that detail, how a painter mixed just that right shade, how controlled a potter’s hands were in creating that perfectly symmetric curve. Along with marvelling at what human effort can achieve, it urges one to reckon different perspectives. People are wired differently and are sensitive to different things. The colours of a painting interest one person, another dwells on the pattern of cracks on its surface, a third will be intrigued by the story of the artist and yet another will see a reflection of themselves in the painting. The same object evokes an assortment of responses from viewers and even varying responses from the same viewer at different points in time, making one observe their own trajectory. They make you acknowledge how far you’ve come and grown in your abilities to negotiate your life.

The museum as a space

The museum lends itself quite naturally as a space of solitude and peace. The experience is one that allows for a greater degree of personal space in comparison to any other avenue of recreation be it a restaurant, a mall or a cinema. In keeping with practices that cater to the health of the collections in a museum, the air and surroundings are clean, the lights are never glaring, it’s rarely noisy, little things that go a long way in making for a comforting experience. One can also tailor their experience depending on their mood — a walk through the different galleries or perhaps just to sit before an object and dwell on its form or maybe participate in a tour or workshop if human contact is what one prefers. There’s something for every mood, every season, every interest and every individual and one leaves a museum with a greater sense of wellbeing.


Walking around a museum, one is witness to several thousands of years of history. It makes one contemplate the transience of our relationship with the world we live in, the people around us and most of all, with ourselves, leading to a sense of awareness, acceptance or motivation as might be the case. They make us acknowledge just how far we have come as a single species, making every seemingly impossible situation feel surmountable, every debilitating feeling conquerable and gives us the strength to take on life with renewed fervour. Objects are wormholes into different worlds, ensnaring us in their stories, challenging some of our beliefs and predispositions while validating others, urging a change in our perspectives while also reassuring us. As we navigate our lives through the good times and the bad, let’s pause every now and then and give ourselves some time. Time to take a break from the humdrum of our lives, to prioritise ourselves and recharge. And when we feel the need to pause and find that balance, let’s go and visit a museum.