A tour of ancient sewers? An encounter with a masterpiece of 16th-century lace-making? These are two of the therapies on offer to people in Brussels suffering from depression, stress or anxiety.
From this month, psychiatrists in one of the city’s largest hospitals have been able to offer patients “museum prescriptions”, a free visit with a few friends or family members to discover one or more of Brussels’ cultural institutions.
Delphine Houba, a Brussels deputy mayor in charge of culture, believes the project is the first of its kind in Europe. The first objective is to reinforce access to culture after the pressured days of lockdown, she told the Observer. “I want everybody back in our cultural institutions… but we know that, even before Covid, for some people it [was] not easy to open the door of a museum, they don’t feel at ease, they don’t think that it’s for them. And I really want to show that cultural venues are for everybody.”
The second goal, she said, is to give doctors “a new tool in the healing process”. The young socialist politician was inspired by a similar project in Canada, where doctors have been issuing prescriptions to the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts since 2018.
In Brussels, the pilot project is running for six months, involving five museums that are directly under the control of city authorities. These include the city’s history museum, a centre for contemporary art, and the fashion and lace museum.
Patients may also discover the sewer museum, which allows them to stroll 10 metres underground along the banks of the Senne, the hidden river of Brussels, largely paved over in the 19th century. Or they could explore the collection of outfits belonging to the Manneken Pis, the statue of a peeing boy that has become a symbol of Belgium’s self-deprecating humour
The cherubic bronze figure has nearly 1,100 costumes, including one from King Louis XV of France from 1747 to make amends for his soldiers’ theft of the statue, and a gift from the Rolling Stones, adorned with the band’s tongue logo, that made its first appearance in July.
“Anything could have therapeutic value if it helps people get a good feeling and get in touch with themselves,” said Dr Johan Newell, a psychiatrist at Brugmann University Hospital, which is taking part in the pilot scheme.
He expects museum prescriptions would suit people suffering from depression, anxiety, autism spectrum disorders, psychosis and bipolar disorder. “I think almost anyone could benefit from it,” he said. “It would probably be more adapted for people who are already a little bit further on in the recovery process”, rather than those who are severely ill, he said.
Museum prescriptions, Newell stressed, were a voluntary addition to medication, psychotherapy, individual or group therapy, as well as exercise, healthy eating and other forms of relaxation.
“It’s just one extra tool that could help people get out of the house: to resocialise, reconnect with society.”
A review by the World Health Organization in 2019 concluded that arts could help people experiencing mental illnesses and urged greater collaboration between culture and public health professionals.
If the pilot is successful, the scheme could be opened to include other museums, cinemas, hospitals and groups of patient. People recovering from brain injuries, as well as older people and children, could also benefit, suggested Newell.
Houba, who chaired the board of Brugmann hospital before her election in 2019, said the one-page prescription was designed to be as simple as possible. People “won’t have a guide or something special because we don’t want them to be stigmatised or to feel different.”
Patients would discuss their visit before and after with their doctor, who would check “how the experience was for them, what they liked, what they didn’t like,” Newell said. As well as a chance to reconnect with society, he also sees an opportunity for quiet reflection away from the bustle of life. “Our society is so, so busy, so full of stress and stimuli,” he said. A museum prescription gives people an “opportunity to settle down for a moment”.