April 14, 2024

Since September, small groups have come to the Le Hamo studio in the Palais de Tokyo, a sweeping modern art museum in Paris, for a different kind of art therapy. It focuses on bien mieux – (feeling) much better – for those who are neurodiverse or struggling with mental health.

It’s part of a broader push across France to incorporate art, culture, and in-person museum visits in individual care plans. France’s art world is taking a bigger role in public health, from mental health issues to chronic illness and disability, in order to help people find community and feel better.

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Can going to a museum be therapeutic? A partnership of therapists, health care workers, and educators in France is creating pathways for doctors to “prescribe” museum visits and art interactions to those needing mental health care.

Advocates say museums can be more than one-way encounters with art. They can also be participatory, promote well-being, and help people move out of social isolation, depression, and anxiety – especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Museums are these exceptional environments, where everything is beautiful and you can slow down. It’s like walking through the forest,” says Nathalie Bondil, a pioneer in the field of museum therapy. “For many people, it’s not natural to go to a museum. But there’s something powerful about the direct confrontation with a piece of art, and that can have benefits on numerous levels.”

Tucked in the back of the Palais de Tokyo, a sweeping modern art museum in Paris, is a large studio. Called Le Hamo, like the French word for hamlet, it is just like its homophone – cozy and inviting. Wormlike ceramic shelving shows off amateur artwork: rust-colored clay figurines and sculptures made of old batteries, cardboard, and toothpicks.

Since September, small groups have come to the studio for art workshops, often in conjunction with visits to the museum. Today, four young people diagnosed with autism have just come from “Infinite Vessel,” by Algerian artist Dalila Dalléas Bouzar, next door.

Resident cultural mediator Lorraine Suty spreads a black cloth on the floor and hands out bits of white string, encouraging the group to re-create the artwork. A teenager in a mauve sweatshirt loops the string into squiggly lines, placing colorful cotton balls around the edges. Although he is nonverbal, a wide smile crisscrosses his face – just like it did during his encounter with the original piece.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

Can going to a museum be therapeutic? A partnership of therapists, health care workers, and educators in France is creating pathways for doctors to “prescribe” museum visits and art interactions to those needing mental health care.

Le Hamo goes beyond traditional art therapy. It focuses instead on bien mieux – (feeling) much better – for those who are neurodiverse or struggling with mental health. It is part of a broader push across France to incorporate art, culture, and in-person museum visits in individual care plans.

France’s art world is taking a bigger role in public health, from mental health issues to chronic illness and disability, in order to help people find community and feel better. Advocates say museums can be more than one-way encounters with art. They can also be participatory, promote well-being, and help people move out of social isolation, depression, and anxiety – especially in the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“Museums are these exceptional environments where everything is beautiful and you can slow down. It’s like walking through the forest,” says Nathalie Bondil, a pioneer in the field of museum therapy and the museum and exhibitions director at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris. “For many people, it’s not natural to go to a museum. But there’s something powerful about the direct confrontation with a piece of art, and that can have benefits on numerous levels.”

Colette Davidson

“Infinite Vessel,” by Algerian artist Dalila Bouzar, provided fodder for contemplation by a small group of young people attending an art workshop at Le Hamo, Dec. 9, 2023.

“A window into reverie”

The concept of museum therapy has existed since the 1980s, but it experienced a big boom in the 2010s. There were programs like Meet Me at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City, which helped people diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease experience art from 2007 until 2014. And Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts launched a comprehensive art therapy and education wing in 2017.

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