Can museums help people with Cancer?

art therapy

Experiencing Cancer is one of the most disturbing and distressing feelings that leaves a significant impact on the human psyche with threats to psychological, physical and psychological aspects of human life. Many people across the world are fighting the deadly disease, which is affecting the people irrespective of their age, sex, or ethnicity. According to the National Institute of Cancer Prevention and Research (NICPR), an estimated 2.25 million people in India live with Cancer and more than 1,157,294 new cancer patients are registered every year. However, Cancer is hitting people of any age group. But it is reported that about nine out of ten cancer diagnoses are in people aged 50 or over.

Scientists are yet to explore the reasons and causes of Cancer. However, many apparent factors have been reported and examined by scientists that people can alter through lifestyle changes. For instance, smoking may cause Cancer, but the body starts to recover quickly once a person stops. After a few years of quitting smoking, a person’s risk of developing some specific cancers can be possibly minimized. But, there are other risk factors that people have no control over, such as age, sex, and genotype.

Cancer is one of the most severe diseases that may affect an individual. An immense amount of bravery, inner strength, and resilience are required to fight it. For this reason, the patients need a strong support network consisting of family, friends, and society. Based on trust and compassion, different groups of society must join hands to facilitate an empowering environment for cancer survivors and those fighting against the disease.

For several years, museums have demonstrated their public value as educational providers, community anchors, and custodians of our national heritage. They have also earned a reputation for driving tourism, creating jobs, attracting businesses to the community, and serving as a source of massive uplift of civic and community pride.

Museum enhancing its functions – The paradigm shift

Nowadays, the scope of cultural institutions has expanded much beyond their primary focus, culture and heritage. In the 21st century, the museum’s gaze has undergone a paradigm shift. As society has changed, so has the work of museums. Today’s museums’ focus is no longer on lifeless objects but on individuals and their place in society. Museums have moved their resources and expertise towards responsible and inclusive social commitments. Museums are increasingly taking on roles like facilitating job training programs, celebrating cultural diversity and awareness. And when we talk about health and wellbeing, museums play a pivotal role in many health care issues. The western museums have worked a lot in this field and developed various innovative strategies to engage with the public. According to the report assembled by the American Alliance of Museums (United States) in 2013, there are some crucial ways that museums are contributing to health care, such as helping patients, training medical professionals, and educating the public about health and wellness issues. This report provides information regarding different aspects of the health care field in which museums are making significant contributions, such as disease prevention, health literacy, hospital outreach, medical training, mental health, children and senior citizen health, nutrition and wellness, and physical disabilities.

How can a museum help people suffering from Cancer?

There are many ways museums can play a significant role in supporting cancer patients and their health care staff. Museums can provide information, which helps people to understand more about the disease. This could take the form of museum-based support groups, art and craft-based therapy sessions, and awareness programs. Constructive exposure and dialogue with the collections of art and artifacts can also be expected to make a positive contribution to the well being of the cancer patients, who often experience immense emotional stress and isolation. Museums can also help the friends and family of cancer patients. These people may also need support as they adjust to the diagnosis while supporting their loved ones.

Museum providing accurate information and a perfect setting

The primary focus of health oriented programs must be to craft a safe space, where individuals with Cancer can engage in activities that will benefit their emotional wellbeing and intellectual stimulation. By doing Google, being diagnosed with something like Cancer can be scarier than ever. There is so much information available on the internet. For many people, the initial urge with any illness is to run to the search engine. This is often counterproductive. The average person does not have the medical knowledge to separate the facts from the fiction in a sea of information. Much of the information available on the internet will be from trusted sources. Unfortunately, there is also a lot of personal storytelling, unproven solutions, and conjecture. Therefore, it is sensible to go to a medical professional when you have questions about a cancer diagnosis. But many people are reluctant to enter the environment of a medical practice or hospital if they don’t have to. They can be frightening places with unhappy connotations.

On the other hand, museums are a safe space where people may feel more comfortable speaking about such difficult topics. A museum in Scotland, Gallery of Modern Art Library (Glasgow), has a partnership with one of the largest British charities known as Macmillan Cancer Support to provide the information and support service. This service is supposed to be open once a week and staffed by trained Macmillan staff and volunteers. Visitors can get accurate and trusted information from this help point. Participants in the program found that the art gallery’s tranquil setting with its surroundings promoted a sense of peace and unity with nature. The setting provided a stark contrast to a hospital environment’s sterility, whereby participants felt calm enough to reflect and share deep feelings about their cancer experiences. One of the participants remarked about the importance of the setting:

“Well, when I came in, the setting was so serene, you know, and away from everything (that) you are so used to in Cancer… away from the hospital smell…. and they (participants) have wigs on or hats, and truly looking at us, you couldn’t distinguish we are, you know, not an average gallery (visitor) attending there”.

Another participant also commented on the value of the setting:

“Or sometimes when I found specifically something touched me or annoyed me or… you know I stayed longer, you know… Not just to hit the road and come home and think about it. I somehow dissolved the problem there”.

Art therapy: A Historical Appraisal

Initially, the art therapy or the museum education program was developed in 1996 at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in partnership with Toronto-Sunnybrook Regional Centre-Bayview Support Network. The first time “art therapy” was originated in England in the 1930s. Although the use of art in healing is rooted in the past, it has therapeutic attributes for modern society. Art act as a medium to express thoughts, feeling, and ideas in a non-threatening manner. Art provides a means of integrating physical, emotional, and spiritual care by allowing cancer patients to respond to their illness creatively. The most comprehensive program described in the literature was the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA) experiment, “Art that Heals” in 1987. The Art-as-Therapy concept allowed cancer patients to explore feelings about their journey, both verbally and through drawing. This exploration helped patients enhance their self-esteem, improve their sense of control, increase the number of coping mechanisms they used, and produce concrete examples of artwork that demonstrated emotional growth.

How art therapies help children suffering from Cancer?

Art can be a real force of healing, an opportunity to center your mind escapes into your imagination, and calm your soul. Now more than ever, we need to find ways to step away from the stress of it all and give ourselves a reprieve.

For young people, a cancer diagnosis can be life-changing. As well as the stress of fighting the disease, children have to spend extended amounts of time in medical facilities. These environments tend to be clinical and can be frightening. In addition to this, being out of school and away from their friends can leave them feeling isolated. Art therapy projects can have a positive impact on young cancer patients. It helps them to process the complex emotions they may be experiencing safely. Art therapy applications help cancer patients visually express their cancer experiences on several levels, such as physically, psychosocially, and spiritually.

Children with Cancer have much benefitted from art therapy programs. Art therapy can be adapted for children by using various techniques such as “Mandala” (Color-feeling wheel), the Change-in-family drawing, and the “Scariest drawing.” These art therapy techniques can allow therapists to concentrate on children’s hidden or difficult feelings relatively early on in the cancer experience. Although the designs appear simple, its responses can be robust, necessitating trained and skilled therapists and practitioners to manage interventions.

Art therapy programs can be easily organized by museums or museum-like institutions with healthcare institutions’ collaborations. Participants usually do not assume any of the costs because generally, such types of art therapy programs are funded by a combination of grants, donations, and hospital budgets.

How art therapies help adults suffering from Cancer?

Art therapy is often viewed as a modality used primarily with children, but it can also be a useful tool for adults dealing with Cancer. Research reveals that art therapy has been effectively used with various adult populations, such as psychiatric, disabled, chronic illness, substance abuse, physical and sexual abuse, criminal, hospice, elderly, HIV/AIDS, and eating disorder.

This type of program needed initial preparation and ongoing support to ensure the therapeutic interaction with the cancer patients. Multiple strategies can be suggested to provide support and direction to the art therapist, such as an introductory program on Cancer, involvement in psychosocial rounds, group debriefing sessions, and periodic evaluation throughout the program.

Again, it is a way of helping them to work through their emotions. Cancer can cause a lot of different stresses and worries. It is beneficial for a patient’s mental wellbeing to explore these feelings.

The Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, previously ran an exhibition of artwork by people with Cancer and for the adult cancer survivors. The project was a partnership between the museum, Cancer Support Community Delaware, and the Helen F. Graham Cancer Centre & Research Institute. At the end of the sessions, the museum hosted an exhibit called “Healing through Art.”

Museums helping people to learn more about Cancer in abroad and India

Cancer is such a vast topic. Doctors and researchers are finding out more information about it on a day to day basis. For people who have Cancer, finding out more about the disease and its works can be a useful exercise. It can help when adjusting to a diagnosis. For society as a whole, learning more about Cancer can help us understand what a person with cancer faces. It also allows people to be more informed about their health and wellbeing.

One of the museums found in the United Kingdom known as the Tayside Medical History Museum held a temporary exhibition in 2007. It took place in Ninewells Hospital in Dundee and charted 100 years of cancer research in the area. In Germany, The Deutsches Museum, Munich has a permanent set of exhibitions on the human body. This includes an exhibit dedicated to Cancer.

A special event held in the United States in 2019 by The Science Museum of Minnesota, St Paul. This event gave visitors a chance to learn all about Cancer. During the interactive session, people were encouraged to ask questions. There were visiting professionals such as scientists and doctors on hand to answer. The museum showed some of the cutting edge treatments used to tackle Cancer. It also highlighted some of the key research that is taking place in the field.

In India, a workshop on Metro travel was organized in 2015 by the Delhi Metro Museum for children undergoing cancer treatment.  About 30 children from the age of 3 to 18 participated in this workshop. They were currently in different stages of treatment for the disease. The event was organized in association with the NGO-CanKids KidsCan, which works for the welfare of Cancer suffering children.

In 2018, the Assam State Museum, Guwahati, has partner with ONCOCARE to conduct awareness programs for cancer survivors and patients, health care providers, and the general public. This museum was the first government institution in Northeast India, collaborating with medical professionals to develop a support mechanism for fighting Cancer bravely.

Kozhikode has also conducted a cancer awareness exhibition in 2018, titled “Can Cure,” organized by Regional Science Centre & Planetarium, Calicut, in association with Pratheeksha and MVR Cancer Centre & Research Institute. Informative panels, interactive models, still models, audio-visuals were the tools used in the exhibition.


The word ‘Cancer’ is an emotive one. There are many people affected by Cancer worldwide, both directly and indirectly. It is not a simple subject, and when we talk about Cancer, there are many different strands and topics within it. But museums have the potential to help with many of these. They can highlight research and raise awareness of new developments. They can help educate the public and provide more information on Cancer and how it works. Therefore, an inference can be drawn from the above-given information that museums can do a lot of work to support people affected by Cancer, from art therapy for patients to information and support for the health care staff. Based on the encouraging results, more museums in India should devise further inclusive projects and succeed in making meaningful contributions to society.

Fatma Faheem is a  Research Scholar Department of Museology Aligarh Muslim University, Aligarh



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