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Experience, Model, Witness: Museums as places to learn about oneself

Experience, Model, Witness: Museum as places to learn about oneself

Examples of therapeutic applications of museum visits

Museum tours

The Boston Museum of Modern Art has worked with Hearthstone, offering “short focused tours” of the museum’s representational pieces for Alzheimer’s patients (Kennedy, 2005).

Working with nature

The Norton Priory Museum & Gardens collaborates with Astmoor Day Services, offering direct work with nature for adults with learning disabilities (Hayden, 2004).

Art educational workshops

The Metropolitan Museum of Art offers educational workshops at social service agencies incorporated into art-based family programs facilitated by Free Arts NYC, an organization that works with abused children.

Throughout history, art objects have been made to tell stories, share experiences, communicate personal perspectives, and influence viewers in other ways. Viewing art can bring up memories and emotions, provoke reflections, and inspire creativity. Nonverbal interaction between viewer and art form activates a unique synergy among the two. Museums provide spaces that offer three conditions that mesh well with many therapeutic frameworks.

First, museums can help individuals to connect with their personal experience, thus making them propitious for therapy. Facilitating the individual’s experience of the self is a common objective of many, if not all, therapeutic frameworks. Exhibition designers and museum educators are encouraged to allow room for the personal interpretations that viewers bring into museums (Hein as cited in Treadon, Rosal, & Wylder, 2006). Such exhibitions can encourage viewers to get in touch with the interplay between their internal and external realities.

Secondly, museums can model ways to acknowledge and manage a wide range of emotional and cognitive experiences. Museums model these possibilities by offering space for the display of human experience and interpretation through artistic form, and treating every interpretation (art piece) with equal care and respect (Salom, 2008). Seen through a particular lens, which an art therapist (as an expert with metaphors) can point towards, art museums can provide opportunities for individuals to observe experiences that arise within them with appreciation and discernment.

An invitation to step back and observe

The favorable conditions of museums are optimal for allowing individuals to discover and respond to what is brought up for them by an exhibit (see following box for a personal example). Art therapists are trained to encourage artistic endeavors without emphasizing product. In a similar way, art therapists can create spaces in museums to deliberately facilitate the process of self-discovery without an emphasis on art education. The art therapist can draw from his/her choice of art, space, sequence and routine within the museum to design experiences that are in accordance with the person’s needs (Salom, 2011). Museums provide a container for such practices by promoting observation and metaphorically offering those observations profound respect.

A personal example that touches on the three elements described

Richard Serra's Abstract Slavery

I recently visited the Richard Serra Drawing Exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco. I stood before a painting called Abstract Slavery, a nine by eighteen foot piece made with small black paint sticks on paper. By paying attention to the pitch darkness of the painting, I inevitably moved into paying attention to my own internal darkness, related to a yearning for slowness and structure. The large dimensions of the painting created a reference for my emotions; compared to the scale and darkness of the drawing, my feelings felt easy to perceive.

The piece, with its stable geometric format, was mounted on a semi-enclosed area of the museum that encouraged me to move to and from its textured surface, allowing a personal flow in perspective. The solidity of the heavy architecture of the museum juxtaposed a reliable balance to my changing emotions.

The impression of the experience was possible in part because of the central role of my internal witness as invited by the atmosphere of the museum: a field of observing attention created collectively by the visitors.

Author :Andrée Salom, M.P.S., A.T.R. Architect & Art Therapist


Engler, J. (1986). Therapeutic aims in psychotherapy and meditation: Developmental stages in the representation of self. In K. Wilber, Transformations of consciousness: Conventional and contemplative perspectives on development. (pp. 17-51). Boston, MA: Shambala Publications.

Hayden, G. (2004, September 2). Fertile ground. Community Care, 1538, 38-39

Kennedy, R. (2005, October 30). The Pablo Picasso Alzheimer’s therapy. The New York Times.

Salom, A. (2008). The therapeutic potentials of a museum visit. International Journal of Transpersonal Studies, 27: 98-102

Salom, A. (2011). Reinventing the setting: Art therapy in museums. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 38, 81-85.

Serra, R. (1974). Abstract Slavery [Painting]. San Francisco Museum of Modern Art.

Treadon, C.B., Rosal, M., & Wylder, V.D.T. (2006). Opening the doors of art museums for therapeutic processes. The Arts in Psychotherapy, 33(4), 288–301.


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