Trauma Healing at the 911 Museum

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Ross and his research partners worked with the National September 11 Memorial and Museum to explore the therapeutic use of objects associated with 911 in the process of trauma healing for 911 survivors. This research has been peer-reviewed and published, is ongoing, and now also involves the War Childhood Museum in Sarajevo.

A grandmother passes down her wedding ring to her granddaughter, who then wears it as her own—and an important family legacy continues. A worn but treasured childhood pocketknife complicates a busy man’s travels—forcing him to check his luggage or send it ahead to his destination—because without it, he experiences a feeling of loss. In a therapeutic session for troubled teenagers, held in a wilderness setting, a young woman composes sticks, leaves and stones into a sculptural object—conveying through it the thoughts and emotions she can’t put into words.

These kinds of rituals and relationships with ordinary objects are familiar to us all. But why do we find so much meaning in objects, and in such specific ways? Why do objects bear characteristics that can move us to tears, laughter, or awe? Why can they foster transpersonal experiences—such as heightened creativity, spirituality, and self-awareness? What is the primal purpose of these intrinsic relationships, and what can the answer tell us about the emotional power of objects in museum exhibitions?

These are the questions my colleagues Brenda and Jason and I set out to explore beginning in 2015. To find the answers, we looked toward the integration of our disciplines: museum exhibition design and psychotherapy. Through her field research, Brenda developed a new theory about objects, health, and healing, which we call “Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics.” The theory, which explores the role of objects in wellbeing and healing, coalesces around fundamental scholarship and practice in museum studies, psychology, and therapy. The theory suggests that object-based exhibitions have the potential to enhance the psychological healing capacities and everyday health of museum audiences, donors, and participants.

Testing the Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics Theory in the Museum Setting

In partnership with the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, we conducted a case study in which we interviewed object donors, believing that the museum’s unique collection-donor relationship would provide an excellent testing ground. Our intent was to seek evidence in this setting where donors considered the institution an ally and protector that is helping to mend a shaken society by collecting personal objects related to a national tragedy. On our behalf, the institution sent out a voluntary call to potential interviewees. The call yielded a number of participants, including five women who had lost their husbands; three survivors (including one who lost her husband and one who lost a cousin); a mother who lost a son; a first responder; and an on-location journalist.

We conducted the interviews as a team. Our interviewing methodology utilized a heuristic approach which generated qualitative data and explored how donors benefitted from participating in the institution’s acquisitions program, how they identified with the donated objects, and their experience with the process of giving.

Throughout the interviews, subjects referred to their objects as “witnesses” to the event and their own experience with donating as the means by which their stories will be told:

“I need them (the objects) to bear witness for my husband.”

Many referred to the need for the objects to keep the memory of their loved one alive and accurately account for the event’s details:

“I wanted to make him a person, not a number.”

“Each object tells a different part of the story of the day. First the ID badge, then the key, the triage gown. They tell the sequence of events. The reality of the day”.

One subject explained that the objects she donated carry a great deal of emotional weight, which can be reasonably said for all of the subjects interviewed. Subjects referred to the 911 Memorial and Museum as a trusted place where their objects would be kept safe and protected, and in that regard, the institution became an ally:

“My story is braided into the museum, it’s a part of my identity.”

“The museum is a better steward of the object than me.”

“The museum is a protector of the objects.”

What We Discovered: Objects and Exhibitions Can Be a Means of Mending

We found that people in vastly different life situations experience relationships with objects that match the themes and steps of the therapeutic process. Our participants examined the concepts of self and identity through associating memories and meanings with objects; experienced the concept of life continuum through giving, receiving, donating and destroying objects; and communicated emotional states and thoughts through grouping, collecting and making objects. These relationships and behaviors provided illustrative examples to further define the five human-object dynamics that constitute the theory of Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics. Those dynamics are:

  • Releasing/Unburdening
  • Associating
  • Giving/Receiving
  • Composing
  • Making

The theory proposes that it is in those specific actions that people experience the healthful and healing impacts of objects.

Releasing/Unburdening is the action of releasing an object from a state of highly associative ownership into a place or state with the intent of entirely and permanently removing it from its former association (meaning) and state of ownership. Donors to the 9/11 Memorial Museum demonstrated this dynamic through their various acts of donating: “I feel positive…freer. I almost want to give them everything,” said a widow who donated her late husband’s recovered gun. “You feel a little bit of weight was lifted off you. It was time. It kind of helped me to move forward a little,” said a survivor who donated her work ID card and damaged bank cards. One takeaway for museums is that institutions receiving donations of personal objects—or designing exhibitions in which audiences contribute objects as part of their visit—could actually be fostering psychological growth and healing.

Associating is the action of maintaining (and keeping within close physical proximity to) an object in an effort to perpetuate the knowledge/memory of the associations attributed to the object—including experiences, emotional states, places, and people. Objects that we hold dear and keep close can feel as if they have an indomitable spirit, fostering resilience, stability, endurance, and belonging. Donors demonstrated this in numerous ways: “This is the newest 911 memorial! I feel a part of me is missing when I don’t have it,” said a survivor who carries a piece of steel from the site in his pocket. Comparably, another survivor needed to keep some of her objects physically close: “Other objects (from the event) I framed and put on my wall. I want to look at them. I want to think about them. I show them to people who come to my house.” Associating suggests healthful ramifications for museums building close ties with their immediate communities and repeat visitors through personal object donation initiatives and co-created exhibitions.

Giving/Receiving is the action of donating or offering to another person or people an object with the intention of its being accepted, and the resultant act of its being received with its attributed meanings mutually understood and held intact. It is critical that the object’s meaning remains intact from person to person. In so doing, the giver and the receiver both experience the psychological concept of connection to family, society, and the life continuum. The donation experiences gleaned in the case study demonstrated Giving/Receiving and illustrated the healthful impacts of museum/donor reciprocity. A takeaway for museums could be developing exhibitions built around themes such as family legacy, culture, or an historical event where audience participants contribute and receive others’ objects within the designed environment, therein making deep personal connections with each other, the message of the exhibition, and the institution as a whole.

Composing is the action of bringing together and juxtaposing objects with the intent of forming and expressing concepts or ideas so as to coalesce, examine, and convey meanings that cannot otherwise be fully or entirely explained or expressed. A 911 survivor who donated items associated with his escape from the World Trade Center’s North Tower said, “It’s important that they stay together and are displayed in a group. It accurately reflects what the experience was. You can’t fake that.” A first responder shared, “They are like my twin boys. They belong together, they are a family.” Museums can take from this the need to curate and juxtapose objects in exhibitions with a careful eye towards message over categorization, consider the metaphorical possibilities in displays and object interactions, and even design exhibitions where visitors and participants actively compose and recompose the environments as part of their experience.

In therapy as in life, people can confront inner challenges and engage in the creative process in order to make progress. In Making, people encounter the steps leading to endurance, resilience, self-awareness, and self-regulation. The action of generating an object is a means of experiencing and implementing the fundamental creative process, and in so doing undergo progressive stages of psychological growth and healing. A wounded journalist who donated her press badge and triage tag to the 911 Memorial and Museum describes a similar therapeutic process: “I’ve written four books since the moment and it’s very cathartic. Purging. It’s a way of emptying yourself. It helps me process and make meaning of the experience.” The healthful and healing impacts of making underscore the importance of activity spaces in exhibitions, on and off-site programming, and opportunities to target audiences where long-term engagement designed around creating objects can make deep personal connections between exhibition content and participants.

Only the Beginning

Museums hold immense power to nurture and heal. Moving forward, we envision many ways that museum developers, designers, educators and audience experts might collaborate with psychologists, therapists, and mental health experts to apply the Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics within their own institutions. Here are several examples:

Your museum might be a place of healing.

The tenets of Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics could be adapted into an evaluation instrument to explore whether current audiences and participants experience therapeutic impacts from their museum visits. Post-visit interviews and focus groups could reveal healthful or healing impacts that align with one or more of the theory’s object dynamics, as was discovered in the 911 Memorial and Museum case study. Active engagement with objects seems the most likely mode for wellbeing and healing, however, it would be interesting to see where passive viewing might play a role.

Your institution can contribute to the wellbeing of your visitors.

The dynamics could be used as strategies for creating highly active, themed, and content rich exhibitions with the intent of providing healthful and healing outcomes for visitors and patrons. Museums could explicitly target object donations for exhibitions that enact the dynamic of releasing/unburdening, or apply composing by designing adaptive and interactive exhibitions where visitors actively juxtapose objects and customize exhibition messages. Exhibitions could provide giving/receiving experiences around the action of reciprocity, where visitors contribute and receive objects. And directed activity spaces that provide the impacts of making could be designed within myriad types of exhibitions.

Psychologically activating exhibitions could be mindfully adapted in consideration of their possible consequences. Museums exhibiting provocative content could implement supportive strategies that are commonly used in object-based trauma therapies in the form of ancillary exhibits with focused object-based activities, or reflection spaces that encourage containment, resourcefulness, and resilience, contributing to visitor safety, comfort, and healing.

Publishing and Next Steps

The results of this case study were presented at the annual conference of the American Alliance of Museums and were published in Exhibition, the Association’s journal. Our research team has continued this work in Sarajevo, at the War Childhood Museum, and will be publishing that work soon.

NOTE: Feel free to get in touch with Ross directly for further details about this project.


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