Monday, February 10, 2020

Museum Objects, Health and Healing: An Interview with Brenda Cowan

Brenda Cowan is an Associate Professor with the Exhibition & Experience Design program at SUNY/Fashion Institute of Technology in New York City.

Brenda is also the author (along with Ross Laird and Jason McKeown) of a new book entitled Museum Objects, Health and Healing.  Brenda was kind enough to share some thoughts about the book and her museum work in the interview below:

What’s your educational background?
Well formally, it includes a BFA in Fine Arts and an MSed from the Leadership program at Bank Street College of Education. There were additional forays of coursework in cultural anthropology at Hunter College and creative writing at Columbia. But at risk of getting all zen on you, my educational background was equally comprised of years as an equestrian (including broken bones), a significant basketball phase (including broken bones), and a new focus on Northern Wu Tai Qi (no broken bones...hopefully).

Those experiences are so significant because I study the things that I do as much as I practice them. I love getting my head around strategies in basketball, or the purpose of riding on the diagonal, or the interconnection between a hand gesture, liver health, and pulling an imaginary assailant to the ground. (Those nice old ladies doing Tai Qi in the park are slow but dangerous. You’ve been warned.) Thinking about education as holistic in this way is very important to me. Formal studies, creative work, research projects, physical activities; everything is done with intention is educational to me.

What got you started in Museums?
I was about six or so and had never been to a museum. No idea what they were. One day while my brother was away somewhere I decided to perform an unauthorized archeological dig in his bedroom. Picture a landfill and you’ll have the right idea. In my excavations, I unearthed a small bronze figure. I suppose it was a dinosaur of some sort, but at the moment I knew better. It was the Loch Ness Monster. The Loch Ness Monster! Its likeness in my very hand! I cannot emphasize enough the thrill I felt at that moment. My heart was racing! I had found proof that the Loch Ness Monster was REAL! (Just go with it, I was six, ok?) I remember standing there trembling, in the middle of my brother’s room, holding this object that solved a riddle that had utterly crippled the entire scientific community for decades. And what’s the first thing I did? I grabbed a bar stool from the basement and placed it in the middle of the living room. I covered it with a sheet and gently placed the figurine on top. I pulled over the love seat and on its arm I placed my beloved book of authentic, real-life photographs of the Loch Ness Monster. I gently propped it open to the show-stopping centerfold image of his head emerging from the murky waters. I could not believe this was really happening. I then got a piece of paper and proceeded to write a label, describing what the Loch Ness Monster is and why he’s so important. I drew a picture of my own, just in case people needed some extra help in understanding how the figurine related to the photograph.

Breathlessly, I raced through the house hollering for my family to come and see my display. It was a hard opening. And go figure, once the others realized that the house wasn’t on fire, there was little interest in this groundbreaking moment in history. Furthermore, my brother had returned and I was forced to immediately deaccession my prized artifact and deinstall what was probably the best exhibit I’ve ever made.

That’s what got me started in museums. That’s what keeps me going.

What got you interested originally in the connections between objects, exhibitions, and wellness?
Have you ever been hit by lightning? Me neither. But let’s run with the analogy. The connection struck me out of the blue about seven years ago when I was deeply immersed in some difficult family events. I found myself observing healing therapies at a wilderness facility in the Blue Ridge Mountains, learning how therapists use things like rocks and sticks and small plastic beads to help people heal through trauma. It was incredible, and during my time there, I knew I was watching something related to exhibitions, but I didn’t know what. I actually felt a spark, but it wasn’t the right time to figure it out.

Stick and leaf labyrinth at Trails Carolina     photo credit: Brenda Cowan

In 2015 I went back, this time as a museum professional. I conducted a research study with staff, clinicians, field therapists, and patients, and heard all of the same characterizations of objects that museum professionals and phenomenologists use when examining object meanings: objects as repositories of memory; witness bearers; companions in life, and so on. Therapists had patients associate their pain and challenges with selected objects. The imbued object became deeply meaningful and its characteristics were put into action: the object became a repository of that painful memory or event; or it became a silent partner in a difficult journey; or perhaps it became a reminder of strength, etc. The object became potent. And in the hands of a person in trauma, the object could then be engaged with as part of a healing process: tossed off a cliff to unburden grief, given as a gift to connect with others, or laced onto a hiking boot as a marker of achievement, and so on.

The interconnectivity of these actions was catalytic and resulted in healing impacts. And in observing these therapies it struck me that people often do these sorts of things on their own. Without a therapist directing us to. Without even thinking about health and healing. And we seem to have some encounters like these in exhibitions. This is why museum scholars have been finding evidence of numinous experience and meaning-making with objects in exhibitions for almost a century now.

The initial field study was life-changing for me, and I developed a true joy for thinking about objects that I hadn’t had before. I formalized the theory of Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics, and then went on to engage therapists Ross Laird and Jason McKeown, and research associate Melisa Delibegovic, in three years of museum-based case studies to solidify the scholarship. For me, objects in exhibitions were suddenly potent. Every one. If not for me then perhaps for someone else. And what an energizing feeling to think that these things around us are alive in this way.

In a lot of ways, the potency of my little Loch Ness Monster experience reemerged. I hadn’t thought of that until now. Thanks, Paul.

Which museums or organizations are in the vanguard of this approach?
Thinking about how to respond to this question has held me up for days. So much is happening with museums, mental health, and wellbeing worldwide. It’s overwhelming. Pull on the thread and you find that this dialogue has been going on for decades, and in remarkable ways among remarkable people.

Big picture, there are many museums working with objects and exhibitions with healthful and healing intentions. And if my research holds true, there are many more that are fostering wellbeing and healing and aren’t necessarily thinking about it. Based on my research, there are notable healthful and healing impacts in exhibitions occurring wherever people are given access to seeing or even actively engaging with objects in focused ways. Perhaps not surprisingly, health and healing outcomes are especially evident in highly participatory museums and exhibitions where constituencies are a part of the life of the institution. Where there are audiences, museum staff, volunteers and communities participating in personal object donation or sharing, curation, design, exhibition maintenance, interpretation, and program engagement, there will be notable evidence of healthful and healing object encounters.

Side story: using the Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics framework as an instrument, I just completed an exhibition evaluation with the National Museums of World Culture in Sweden. They co-created a small exhibition – Stories From Syria – with Sweden’s Syrian refugee and immigrant population, displaying participants’ personal objects and stories. The healing and healthful impacts for the Syrians, Museum staff and visitors were abundant and incredibly moving. There wasn’t an explicit intention to foster health and healing via the exhibition, although the goals of the exhibition aligned with the principals of participatory practice (shout out to Nina Simon). Now the institution is considering how to approach healthful outcomes in future exhibition development. So, museums that are explicitly identifying health, wellbeing, and healing are in the vanguard, so to speak, although museums and exhibitions like Stories From Syria, that are participatory in practice and mission are as well.

Nour and Brenda in Sweden      photo credit: Lusian Alasaaf

There are many people, organizations, alliances, and studies that are leaders in this dialogue, and here are some that have been influential to my own work.

Please do learn about and visit The National September 11 Memorial and Museum in New York, The War Childhood Museum in Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, and The Derby Museum and Art Gallery in Derby, England.

Health and wellbeing are woven into their missions and operations, and through their practices, they provide excellent examples of how to approach these outcomes. Another important call out here is the Happy Museum Project. This UK-based museum and cultural heritage organization is a tremendous resource for everyone interested in this topic.  Mark O’Neill and Helen Chatterjee, also in the UK, have been leading research and influencing policy in this arena for well over a decade, and I’ve included a few items below where you can learn about their work. Professor Chatterjee initiated the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance, which is an excellent online resource in particular.

The American Alliance of Museums and the Center for the Future of Museums likewise have been keeping abreast of the connection between museums and mental health. The American Alliance of Museums (AAM) published a 2018 report entitled Museums on Call: How Museums are Addressing Health Issues, which provides important resources.

Here are some other important articles and books to know about as well:

American Alliance of Museums. 2018. “Museums on Call: How Museums are Addressing Health Issues.”

Chatterjee, Helen. 2013.  Museums, Health and Well-BeingLondon: Routledge.

O’Neill, Mark. 2010. “Cultural attendance and public mental health — from research to practice.” Journal of Public Mental Health 9 (4)

War Childhood Museum. 2018. “The idea, mission and vision of the War Childhood Museum.”

Taksava, Tatjana. 2018. “Building a Culture of Peace and Collective Memory in Post‐conflict Bosnia and Herzegovina: Sarajevo’s Museum of War Childhood.” Studies in Ethnicity and Nationalism May 2018

National September 11 Memorial & Museum. 2019. “President’s Message.”

Pye, E., ed. 2007. The Power of Touch: Handling Objects in Museum and Heritage Contexts. Walnut Creek, CA: Left Coast Press, Inc.

Silverman, Lois H. 1998. The Therapeutic Potential of Museums: A Guide to Social Service/Museum Collaboration. Washington D.C.: Institute of Museum and Library Services.

Can you talk a little about your new book?
It’s a monograph and therefore targets an academic readership, however, it’s written in a very narrative style. This was so important to me. All of this work is about people, objects, and ultimately, humanity. The book captures that. It provides the depth and breadth of scholarship grounding the theory of Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics and breaks down the mechanics of the theory itself.

There are chapters for each of the four case studies that comprised the empirical research phase of the work, including the National September 11 Memorial and Museum, the War Childhood Museum, the Derby Museum and Art Gallery, and the Museum at FIT. I share the methodology for the studies, why those institutions were selected, the data that resulted, and evidence of the theory in exhibition settings. Three chapters are written as first-person narratives and are quite personal. In one, I describe the personal and then the professional journey of how I created the theory and its inspirations.

In another, my coauthor Jason McKeown writes about the practice and pedagogy of wilderness therapy and describes his work as clinical director at Trails Carolina, a wilderness therapy facility in North Carolina. My other coauthor Ross Laird wrote a chapter describing how he uses objects in deeply meaningful and innovative ways as part of his therapy practice in British Columbia. In later chapters, Ross and Jason provide thoughtful information for museums about working with therapists. They provide practical recommendations for museums from a therapist's point of view.

All throughout the book are quotes, anecdotes, and the voices of the people we interviewed and their relationships with objects. These personal and elegant elements are so important because they simply show how the theory works. It’s the 83 people who lovingly, and in some cases courageously, shared the depth of their object experiences that carry the book, and makes for some very beautiful and rich reading. If you want a sneak peek you can read a portion of the book here:

Have museums responded positively to your research?
So far, very much so. It’s actually a complex question – “positive” takes different forms here – so I’ll give you some context and detail. Regarding the museums that I directly worked with on my research, I attribute the positive outcomes with a thoughtful process and patience on everyone’s behalf. Following my first study with Trails Carolina, I knew I needed to conduct empirical research in museum settings and approached several institutions in a straightforward and in some cases, bold way. For each of the museums, it took about a year of conversations and planning and relationship building before the studies were actually conducted. Things progressed slowly and carefully, and each study, from the first point of contact to final reporting, took about two years. Over the course of three years and four museums in the empirical phase, there was a lot of overlapping work.

I found that I didn’t need to convince any of the institutions per se, but it did take a while to clarify what I was looking to achieve and how the results could be beneficial for the institution, its constituency, and the museum and therapeutic communities. And it was important for the museums to know that this was personal. To me. It probably wouldn’t have been a recommended approach – to share with potential partners how intimate the question of objects and human health is to me personally – but I did. The responses to my personal quest have been positive and I’m grateful to everyone I’ve worked with for that.

I asked colleagues at the 911 Memorial Museum if I could work with them and I can’t tell you how generous they were. They coordinated object donor participants for interviews and demonstrated tremendous trust in the care and quality of the methodology. Ross and Jason were significant participants in conducting the interviews so that interview subjects would feel safe, and so the process could be heuristic. Among the object donors, who are relatives of victims, first responders, and others directly impacted, the museum is viewed as an ally and partner in their healing process. It was extremely positive for everyone involved in the study, and the results illustrate the powerful impacts the museum is having on thousands of people who need that institution in order to heal.

The same experience can be said for the study at The War Childhood Museum in Sarajevo, which I conducted with Melisa Delibegovic. Melisa is a war survivor, exhibition designer, and research colleague who had direct links with the museum. She was instrumental in providing a personal connection with the museum and with supporting that study. It was powerful, and I am completely smitten with this institution. The results of that study have been likewise very positive. Ross and Jason joined me again for the studies at The Derby Museum and Art Gallery, and The Museum at FIT, which followed the exact same protocol with very positive outcomes. I am continuing close relationships with those institutions as well, and there are possibilities for continued work with them in the future.

Child's blue hat from War Childhood Museum     photo credit: Brenda Cowan

When I approached the National Museums of World Culture in 2019 about conducting the evaluation of Stories From Syria, they were very positive and excited. We performed the work on a Fulbright grant, and I returned to Stockholm and Gothenburg this past November to share the study results and discuss future work with them as well. The outcomes of the study transcended expectations in certain ways, and there is a hunger to do more.

So far, all of the work has produced positive results and interest from museums. In theory, that should be the case. A museum can learn how they are helping people in identifiable and measurable ways. With all of these initial studies, I feel like we are only just scratching the surface of seeing what is playing out in museums. I want to have a museum object, health and healing nuclear microscope. Let's make one. Maybe Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics is a nuclear microscope. I hope so.

What advice would you have for museum professionals, especially those from smaller museums, in making sure their exhibitions and programs manifest in ways that promote wellness?
Oh boy, this question is a giant. I hope it’s not obnoxious to point to the book for information on this one. The case studies show how exhibitions and museums can promote health and healing through participatory practices and even in passive exhibition environments. The chapters on how museums can – and should – work with the mental health community provide thoughtful guidelines and advisement for any institution approaching these aims. Seeking explicitly to foster health and healing through exhibitions and programming involves constructing appropriate teams of professionals, and establishing solid connections and modes of communications among staff, volunteers, stakeholders, as well as the broader museum constituencies. It needs to be a part of the mission and/or strategic plan of the institution. Don’t enter into this meekly or in an unclear fashion. Seemingly simple exhibitions, projects and programs can and are having very powerful impacts on people’s mental health.

The tiniest of museums can achieve very healthful exhibition experiences, and behind the scenes, there should be an intricate and well-thought-out network of museum stakeholders working with experts in mental health. This doesn’t have to be cumbersome despite how I’m presenting it, but I want to advise approaching processes, program execution, and exhibition planning with care. You will find a lot of information on this in the resources I provided above as well. And another side note, folks should be mindful that you can’t ensure or “guarantee” healthful experiences. Just like you can’t ensure or guarantee meaning-making experiences. A great exhibition opens pathways and doors to these kinds of experiences. Creates contexts, moments and spaces for them. It can nurture and promote wellness.

Blue Pinny from FIT study      photo credit: Brenda Cowan

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Paul Orselli writes the posts on ExhibiTricks. Paul likes to combine interesting people, ideas, and materials to make exhibits (and entire museums!) with his company POW! (Paul Orselli Workshop, Inc.) Let's work on a project together!

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