More than a pretty painting, the real human meaning of art museums
Museums feel home to some but not for others. While London is inundated with rooms you can enter without costing you a penny, an entry ticket for an exhibition can still easily cost £15, making it inaccessible to many. Its history tells a very similar story. Art museums were inspired by “wonder rooms” or “cabinets of curiosities” where aristocrats housed their treasure as an outward symbol of their wealth. They then became public spaces where artists could show off their skills and places where viewers could discover the world. Slowly,
however, it has become something else...
Walls filled with beautiful paintings and sculptures placed zig-zag make you feel like you’re walking through a maze. These spaces are relaxing and inspiring; medicine for the soul. It’s no wonder then that many institutions have been thinking about using art as a method of healing and museums as a place of Benevolence. The NHS mental health service trialled a programme in 2019 where patients received treatment in 2 museums in Gloucester. Using objects and pieces of art in the museum, patients were able to share their stories and express their feelings, giving them another method of communication other than words. Further away in Brussels, doctors are prescribing museum trips to people who have been suffering from stress. As part of this scheme, patients are able to visit 5 museums for free.
Art, like most subjects, was dominated by males. Women often didn’t have the opportunity to get creative with a canvas. However, as we recognise the work of female painters more,
these rooms have become spaces of empowerment that tell the hidden story of those who have been historically silenced. Perhaps the most striking example of this is the “Close-up” exhibition in Switzerland, a gathering of 100 artworks by 9 female artists in the past 150 years inviting us to view the world through the female gaze.
When we think of protests, we typically imagine the noise of protestors flooding the street with signs and banners, rather than the quiet, air-conditioned, and relatively comfortable environment of Zanele Muholi’s exhibition at Tate Modern. This collection of breath-taking photography is also a site of Universalism; a safe space to criticise the bias and violence against LGBTQIA+ in South Africa. Muholi’s photography invites people to reflect on uncomfortable realities people face and the visual format can at times be more confrontational than hearing chants on the street – the injustices are there right in front of your eyes.
Art museums are seemingly just spaces that contain visual content but what they really are and the values they hold are flexible depending on the purpose of the visit, who the artist is and what they are trying to communicate. They can be spaces of Benevolence, Power or Universalism, or even something else. Next time you get the chance to visit an art museum, we invite you to reflect on what the rooms you walk through really are and what values they live.
Emily, Research Manager