Museums, Society, Inequality

By Richard Sandell | Go to book overview

5

The therapeutic potential of museums as pathways to inclusion

Lois H. Silverman

New roles for museums

Slowly but surely, an ever-broadening vision is emerging of the nature and potential of museums in society. Fuelled by both financial and ethical necessity, museum workers internationally are boldly proclaiming a critical role for museums in facilitating social inclusion, and their power as agents of change. On what basis? Even an hour of casual observation reveals the many ends to which visitors use museums: for social bonding, reminiscence, relaxation, and more. A burgeoning body of visitor research confirms the depth of feeling and range of needs that visitors bring to the museum experience (e.g. Annis 1974; Silverman 1990). Utilising this knowledge, museums are learning to work with, and not against, that which people need, want, and do. Having noticed what can happen in and because of museums, more and more writers in the field are positioning museums as facilitators of experience and/or beneficial outcome for as many different people as possible (Prentice 1996; Doering 1999; Kotler 1999; Wells and Loomis 1998).

One promising pathway to an expanded social role for museums lies in recognising their therapeutic potential. Visitors to museums can experience a wide range of benefits, including learning, reflecting on the humanities, restoring oneself, affirming one’s sense of self, and feeling connected to community and culture (Graburn 1977; Kaplan et al. 1993; Silverman 1995). Yet museums assume a healthy visitor population. Seldom reached by museums is the significant number of people whose struggles impair daily functioning; for example, those wrestling with depression, or coping with the onset of old age and related losses of function, or adjusting to life with a terminal illness, or dealing with substance abuse. Such populations are rarely talked about by museums, let alone considered as potential visitors. Yet among their needs, these individuals also crave opportunities to learn, to reflect, to restore, and perhaps, most importantly, to affirm a sense of self and continued connections to others in the face of difficulty.

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