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Sunday, 3 April 2016

#LoveMW: I love museums because they help with my depression and anxiety

Today is the last day of Twitter’s Museum Week on the topic of Museum Love. Not really knowing whether it is a good idea to post something like this on the Ministry, I thought I would throw together something personal and a little bit difficult to write. Why I love museums is, at least at the moment, slightly more self-centred than their research potential, engagement with history, or inspiring stories. I love museums because they help me deal with my mental health issues.

Museum Week is a huge time for museum bloggers to be busy, and getting likes and retweets for their social media content. You might have noticed the Ministry has been a bit quiet this week, however, and it’s mostly me to blame. In addition to being overwhelmed with work, personal life etc, it has been a particularly rough period in my much longer struggle with anxiety and depression. We talk a lot about mental health in museums, but typically about how this issues are represented in museums. More frequently the industry is becoming interested in how to reach out to different health communities, and how museums might be therapeutic for the public. Well I have to say as a museum professional they are simultaneously therapeutic and incredibly stressful.

How do I always seem to miss all the exhibitions? The grueling cycle of headline grabbing, queue-inducing exhibitions that London museum’s jostle for make loving museums in the city a stressful affair. Personally I have some serious FOMO, and when I do miss exhibitions it can make me very anxious and down. Too much to see in too little time – unless you are doing it as a job it seems inevitable to only scratch the surface of what London’s museums are doing at any one time. Great for tourists with so many amazing opportunities to choose from, anxiety-inducing for those of us who are trying to keep up with the industry.

But on the other hand, I think it’s the slowness of museums, their permanency, which has helped me out in times of trouble. If you can manage to get into a museum on a relatively calm day, there is something incredibly soothing about performing the role of the museum visitor. You enter the hallowed halls, hang up your coat, select a gallery, and slowly wander round, casually pausing at interesting looking pieces of text. You read from start to finish, you follow the story, you listen to the interactives, maybe you take a picture of something you’d like to share. You sit for a while and think. While I most frequently go to museums as a social outing, they are also a place for me to be alone.

When you have depression, doing anything at all is a challenge. When you combine that with anxiety, at least in my case, it typically means that I continued to be busy doing things (hence the FOMO) just more like a zombie inside. Social interactions are particularly difficult, but my brain is not very keen on letting me rest. Museums are such a blissful oasis in this particular combination of issues. I can be alone, I can be quiet but also keep my brain focused on something that is not anxiety. But I think importantly I’m often looking at objects or paintings made decades or centuries ago, probably by people dealing with the exact same things as me. The world is big, time is long, this moment is short and things will, more or less, continue in the same way (with probably a newer more exiting version of a phone).

So I love museums because (and this is not a particularly trendy thing to say, quite unlike what we normally promote via the Ministry), they are sanctuaries – places where anyone can go to see art, history, or whatever they are interested, and take a little break from the world around them. As a museum person, I know how to ‘be’ in a museum, how to interact, how to get the most out of it. I know this is a privilege of the few, but speaking from a selfish place, the knowability of museum has helped me time and time again when I have felt isolated or too introspective. I’m sure there are many people out there similar stories, and personally I would love to hear if and how museums might have helped with your own struggles.

I’m sure we will be back to your regularly programmed Ministry cheerfulness shortly, but thank you for listening. – Kristin


  1. Yes, yes, yes! 'Sanctuary' says it all. It's why I particularly like spaces with loads of seating (and rarely attend those hectic 'blockbuster' exhibitions).

    My Dad, a reserved factory worker, used to make a pilgrimage to our closest major museum & art gallery once a year. As a child, it was always a mystery as to where he went and why he went on his own without his family. When I was old enough to go with him (and not interrupt) I understood. It was an opportunity for him to escape, to appreciate history, beauty and skill,a place to be inspired and to get some perspective on life. I feel incredibly lucky that my Dad showed me into this world and made it normal. And thankful for the art teacher at my school who took us to London on the train/tube (instead of the usual coach trip) so that we'd feel confident visiting galleries on our own.

    I wish so much that everyone felt as relaxed and at home in our museums as I do. I was shocked and horrified to discover so much elitism when I did my Art History degree. I hate that so many of my friends think museums are an intellectual pursuit for the privileged few and thus 'not for them'. At the same time, it keeps the galleries nice and quiet for me ;-)

    Thanks for the personal blog post. And apologies for my long comment.

  2. Sorry for the late comment, I'd missed this piece when it was published. What a thoughtful and personal thing to share. I wonder if, almost as suggested in the post above about millenials, museums could start by do more to learn from their staff about mental health. Perhaps by being better workplaces museums could learn to be more inclusive of their visitors too, so that more people could benefit from, as you put it, knowing: "how to ‘be’ in a museum".