Dr. Quirion acknowledged that accessibility is definitely an issue, even in Montreal, where the MMFA is out of range for residents of its semi-rural suburbs. Part of the pilot program’s purpose is to learn how to scale the initiative and reach more people. Dr. Quirion’s hope is that new technology will facilitate remotely guided visits. Bondil’s hopes are loftier still: “In one year, we’d be able to study the impact of museum prescription, and we will see how to spread it in other countries,” she said.
Chatterjee travels all over Europe helping local art museums become involved in scientific research (which often comes with a deeper well of funding opportunities). “The challenge is what is available in people’s communities, and putting them to best use,” she explained. Having seen how the urban-rural divide is cross-cut with more insidious accessibility issues tied to class, she noted that “it always comes back to the ethics of: Why should only privileged people be able to access the arts?”
In fact, when discussing the study that looked into how cardiac arrest survivors with depression responded to a museum visit and painting session, Dr. Quirion acknowledged that while some patients showed lower levels of anxiety after their museum visit, others “became more anxious, probably because they felt they were not up to par.”
The success of a doctor-prescribed museum visit rests on how accessible art feels—not only to the patients, but to those with the prescription pads. Another challenging divide is the one that places the sciences and the humanities on opposite ends of an imagined academic spectrum. The reluctance goes both ways.
On the clinicians’ end, “they don’t understand non-clinical interventions because they’re not taught them in medical school,” Chatterjee explained. Dr. Quirion, a neuroscientist himself, noted that in the museum visits, “you have a new strategy, so opening the minds of the clinicians, even if it’s only a small percentage, would already be a win.”
Just as some doctors will need convincing, the board of the MMFA also needed some persuasion. Bondil had to show the board that making the museum available to researchers was as important an effort as conservation, publications, and exhibitions. The museum prescription, she said, is in itself a powerful symbol—that anyone can imagine being at the doctor and having this treatment option.
The prospect of doctor-prescribed museum visits sheds light on a host of issues that have long kept the general public away from the arts, and the arts away from the sciences. A future where art-based activities are as commonly recommended as exercise is a future in which doctors and clinicians trust and believe in the power of art to heal. Going to museums and galleries would be less of a socio-cultural hurdle, as visitors would feel that the art is theirs to enjoy. It’s a world in which local patients happily jaunt up the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art and into the galleries, only to ecstatically fist-bump when they reach the
“This new vision,” Bondil concluded, “will rethink the impact of culture beyond scholarship and artistry, and the museum will be a platform for wellbeing in our society.”