27 september 2022

The healing power of art

The Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels has noticed it can help people with severe illnesses express themselves and discuss questions of mortality through art. Isabel Vermote´s job is to ensure even those with severe illnesses or disabilities can experience art. Vermote has been working in the education department of The Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels for the past fifteen years.
by Antti Kylmänen

Originally having studied history, and later specializing in art sciences in Free University of Brussels, Isabel Vermote has always had an interest in social issues. This intrigue has seeped through into her work as a museum guide, and she believes museums have an important social role to play in our society.
‘It´s interesting to see how people express themselves and get new ideas in a museum. I think it´s a very important place to meet each other in a neutral context’, Vermote explains.

Made to measure
To tackle social issues in a museum environment and to make the museum experience possible also for people with disabilities, The Royal Museums of Fine Arts has developed a program called Made to Measure. For twenty years now, through this program the museum has made the exhibitions accessible to for example blind and deaf and people experiencing different social problems. For the past five years the museum has also had the Art and Health program that focuses on guests struggling with for example dementia or anorexia.

Isabel Vermote. Copyright Antti Kylmänen
Isabel Vermote. Copyright Antti Kylmänen


The use of the word “guest” instead of patient is very important, Vermote says. The aim of all these programs is to make everyone feel welcomed to the museum, regardless of any issues or illnesses they might have.
For some guests the museum visits work as a form of palliative care, which aims to optimize the quality of life for people with severe and complex illnesses, some of them who might be at the end of their life. Vermote works with a group of palliative care guests every three months. According to Vermote, working with people in palliative care demands a lot of preparation even before the guests arrive at the museum.
‘Many consider museums very intellectual and boring as well. That’s why in the Made to Measure program we first go to the institution and try to get to know our guests before they come to the museum, as well as the people around them: the health care workers, volunteers and psychologists. It has an added value.’

Surprising results
Initially Vermote was skeptical about how the museum could help people in end-of-life care. The practicalities seemed difficult and she was also hesitant how she would react emotionally while working with people who might die soon.
But when The Royal Museums of Fine Arts held its first event for people in palliative care, Vermote was blown away by how energized and enthusiastic the guests were even after an hour of touring the museum. She also quickly realized that the guests were very open to conversations about death and illness.
‘I never thought I´d discuss that with them but they didn´t have any problem with that at all. Those visits are always very pure, direct and open. I don´t think I´ve ever laughed that much because they just say what they think and there are no masks. Sometimes people are afraid to tell about themselves in a group but with them the discussions are very open.’
Even though the goal of these visits is to “heal” through art outside of the medical context, Vermote does remind that she is an art historian, not a psychologist. But of course, that doesn´t mean the guests are not allowed to share their insights.
Vermote has learned that the most important thing is to be flexible, and to give the guest all the time and silence they need to experience the art. Sometimes schedules can change last minute and cancellations appear, for example when a guest feels too sick to participate.
According to Vermote, in a museum environment the whole institution must work together to develop accessibility. For example, the guards must be sensitized to treat guests with consideration and guide them to elevators. In the end every step towards accessibility builds to the guest´s feeling of being welcomed.