Art Museums Do Not Boost My Mood

From time to time, I will post short commentaries on work produced by others. I will list the work and state my reaction to it.

3 Reasons Why Visiting an Art Museum Can Boost Your Mood

This post appeared on the Social Instincts blog, Psychology Today, April 19, 2022.

The Social Instincts blog is a place to summarize papers in academic journals. Here is their summary of a study in Positive Psychology about visiting art museums.

“Recent research found three benefits of frequent visits to art museums: Visits can reduce stress, combat isolation, and be rewarding.”

It is not surprising that a post about museum visits boosting your mood would be shared by the social media accounts of many museums. At first, I hesitated to follow the link to read it because I have evidence that museums do not improve the moods of some visitors. People who are blind or have low vision describe visits to museums as boring and frustrating.

The lack of accessible content is frustrating. If a sculpture is mounted on a pedestal or kept behind a railing, then those who are prevented from touching the sculpture are deprived of an opportunity to explore it. Those who can see it get an opportunity to examine the sculpture. The same situation applies when a painting is installed without a tactile reproduction. Although verbal descriptions are appreciated, they cannot substitute for the experience of independently exploring an artwork.

Art museums are environments that preference the sense of sight in art appreciation. This environment can be stressful because there is no consideration for other sensory components. It is isolating, and it certainly is not rewarding for all visitors.

To learn more, read

In Their Own Words: Adults Who Are Blind Describe Museums

There are assumptions baked into the headline that visiting an art museum “can boost your mood.” The reader is addressed as “you,” and everyone is assumed to have positive experiences on their museum visits. All visitors are assumed to have the same abilities and perceptions.

I have shown that positive experiences are not universal, so how can this headline be explained? To answer that question, I read the research study that was summarized in the Social Instincts Blog. The study is:

Katherine N. Cotter & James O. Pawelski (2022) Art museums as institutions for human flourishing, The Journal of Positive Psychology, 17:2, 288-302, DOI: 10.1080/17439760.2021.2016911

Cotter and Pawelski “review the psychological literature examining art museum visitation and museum program participation.” The research literature does not address the relationship between lack of accessible content and the well-being of visitors with disabilities. The only published research about people with disabilities cited in Cotter and Pawelski’s review is about people living with dementia.

There is a circular logic in play. The literature does not address the spectrum of human abilities. Visitors are assumed to have the same abilities and to benefit from the same environments. Thus, the universal assumption that “your” mood is boosted by visiting an art museum is based on the sameness of visitors. In fact, human abilities vary, and a universal assumption is not true.

Much more can be written about this topic, but my purpose in posting commentaries is to limit discussion to a particular work. For the blog post and the journal article, the take-away is that the assumptions made are not true for all visitors.