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Museums Must Become More Trauma Informed

Written by Jackie Armstrong

When I took my first steps into the world of visitor research and evaluation there was a lot of emphasis on how to make the museum a more engaging place. The word engaging often got thrown around with no outline of what that actually looked in practice, or sometimes even no explanation as to why an engaging experience was what a museum should be trying to achieve. Engaging for whom, in what ways, and under what circumstances? Everyone used the word but the nuances were very different depending on the person and the situation. This was something I was hyperconscious of and always tried to address in my evaluation practices.

I’m noticing a very similar thing happening now with how the word trauma is used, in particular as more institutions and organizations talk about being trauma aware, trauma sensitive and/or trauma informed.  I’m thrilled there is finally more focus on the prevalence and impact of trauma, but I am aware that not everyone is talking about the same thing or on the same page and also recognize how far we have to go in realizing a trauma informed museum. This is something I’ve been wanting to address, professionally as someone who advocates for visitors through evaluation and research and as a person engaged in intensive trauma therapy and working on healing from the impact of traumas in my life. 

It is my firm belief that museums have a responsibility to do the work to become more trauma informed, not later but now. Museums are not standalone containers for housing art, but hubs of human interaction located within communities. If museums wish to be truly relevant to people and be spaces in which people can safely and purposefully come together to experience art in layered and meaningful ways, and be able to show up as their authentic selves, then museums must become trauma informed. This requires a culture change throughout the museum, not just using trauma informed practices in one department within the museum. This is something I’ve felt urgency around for quite awhile but feel that both COVID-19 and the issues underlying the Black Lives Matter movement are bringing all of this into focus even more as collectively our worldviews have collapsed and individually we are all dealing with survival reactions. A growing sense of unease has flooded our consciousness, many of us pushing for changes that require solidarity, intentionality, and unwavering action. 

“Traumatic experiences and oppressive social conditions cause us to move into a series of automatic, holistic, and incredibly creative means of first surviving then adapting to the harm, ruptured connection with ourselves and others, and betrayal.  We are built for safety, belonging, and dignity. We are built to be connected to and make a difference for others, to have meaningful lives. When any of these core needs are disrupted through trauma, we automatically attempt to protect ourselves….Traumatic experiences are always happening within a social context and shaped by social conditions. They are nearly always perpetuating the “rules of engagement” of our social conditions.” (Staci K. Haines, Somatics, Healing, and Social Justice: The Politics of Trauma, Chapter 4)

Let’s think about COVID-19 first. To start, we have this invisible threat that no one fully understands but it’s clear that some people get very sick and even die. It spreads easily and rapidly and we can get it just by going about our lives. We fear getting sick and potentially dying and we fear loved ones getting sick and dying, and in order to keep each other safe we need to stay away from one another, which goes against our instincts as humans. We are asked to isolate in our living environments and practice physical distancing. We develop rituals around cleanliness and hygiene in an effort to thwart the virus and we scan news sources constantly hoping for answers. Levels of hypervigilance are at an all time high for many. And while we do these things, we are given mixed information from those in power that only adds to the emotional dysregulation we’re experiencing. Dysregulation makes it difficult to manage and recover from the intense emotions that might come from upsetting situations. Prolonged emotional reactions take a toll on our physical and mental well-being. There are several results from all of this: feelings of powerlessness, a deep sense of dread for the future, overreactions to “little things”, a near constant state of fear, mood swings, sleeplessness, and more.   

Added to the constant threat to life that COVID-19 leaves many people with is the economic instability that comes with lockdown, the loss of regular coping strategies, and perhaps worse, the inability to have physical contact with people in your life who you would normally turn to for comfort. It’s an extremely disorienting time. Our bodies, to varying degrees, live out the state of emergency we are in and our bodies fight the isolation that we must endure to keep one another safe. For those with existing unresolved trauma, everything surrounding COVID-19 escalates these experiences.  None of us can orient to the threat of COVID-19 because we cannot see it, nor can we adequately flee it or fight it, so a lot of our reactions become internalized or come out in other ways such as the dysregulated emotional responses mentioned above, as well as physical symptoms such as migraines, gastrointestinal issues, inflammation and other physical pain. 

Early into the COVID-19 outbreaks in the United States, the glaring inequality that has existed for so long came into focus for many more people as BIPOC are impacted by COVID-19 more than white people and also face unemployment at higher rates. Along with this there has been a surge in police brutality against Black people, something that has been going on for far too long, and perhaps because of COVID-19 more people, specifically white people, finally are taking notice of the massive injustices and inhumanities taking place. The present moment is asking everyone to not look away or remain silent but to rise together and fight these injustices. All of this against a backdrop of climate change and political instability.

There is a pervasive weight of fear and grief everywhere. The world is literally screaming for us to heal. Something must shift.

Before we talk about what a trauma informed museum is and what that might look like in practice it’s important to start by considering what trauma is.

What is Trauma?

The first thing to know about trauma is that it exists on a spectrum. When people talk about trauma they often refer to a specific event or series of circumstances but trauma is actually more about how the brain and body processes those experiences.  Everyone experiences trauma at some point in their life and everyone to some degree has unintegrated traumatic experiences.  Unintegrated trauma is that which hasn’t been properly acknowledged or contextualized and therefore remains trapped in the body, instead of being processed and moved through. When trauma isn’t integrated into someone’s consciousness and/or when the natural reaction to trauma hasn’t been given space to be felt (e.g. feeling anger, grief, being able to escape), it gets stuck. This is problematic for many reasons but mostly because it impacts the present, causing reactions that are out of place and out of proportion to things happening in the current time or situation. This is why trauma treatment often involves modalities outside of talk therapy, for example EMDR (Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing) and/or SE (Somatic Experiencing).  There are many different types of trauma or large categories of experiences that can result in trauma such as early childhood trauma, cumulative trauma, interpersonal trauma, developmental and attachment trauma, trauma in adulthood (often, but not always, re-enactments of early trauma), systemic injustice, intergenerational trauma, racial trauma, immigration trauma and many more. The list of symptoms that can be associated with trauma is lengthy and goes far beyond the flashbacks and nightmares mostly commonly thought of, having repercussions on the brain and body.

Most people cannot begin to process trauma, and therefore heal from it, until they feel safe. Safety and stability are critical. People who have someone who is able to co-regulate and be with them, at the time trauma occurs, can often move through the experience more quickly so that the trauma doesn’t have as long lasting or as severe of an impact as it does for someone who has no one to be with them in their pain. This is one reason why childhood trauma can continue to haunt people into adulthood as most people at the time their childhood trauma occurred did not have adequate support in place, in particular if their caregivers were the abusers. At the heart of trauma is a sense of isolation, disconnection and feeling of not belonging. Trauma asks to be seen, heard and felt and therefore requires connection and community.  Healing from trauma involves the relief of suffering, validation for what has been endured, and words and action which seek to make sense out of something which defies reason. Everyone’s individual nervous systems as well as access to resources (external but also internal) plays a big role in one’s ability to heal.

Trauma is about overwhelm. It’s about something happening that is too much, too fast, or too soon for the body and mind to take in. Trauma is about unmetabolized information that gets stuck in the body and makes it hard for people to heal from. Trauma is about the nervous system, intolerable sensations and emotional dysregulation. Trauma is about dissociation as an unconscious survival mechanism. Trauma is about defense mechanisms and shame responses. Trauma is about activation levels and hypervigilance. Trauma is about not feeling safe in one’s own body and feeling disconnected from the world. Trauma is about the impact on a person’s life, which can be enormous, layered and long lasting, but it is also about hope, resilience and finding your way home, both to yourself and to a community of supporters. 

One of the clearest definitions of trauma comes from Howell (2020) who explains that:

trauma is that which causes dissociation, that is, it causes a blank spot, or fissure in experience, causing a deficit in the ability to regulate affect and to make sense of things. This conceptualization has the advantage of bypassing debates about the meaning of objectively defined trauma (which does not result in post-traumatic stress to all those exposed to it) and subjective trauma (which can run the risk of categorizing anything that is distressing as traumatic)…. An experience is traumatic if it is overwhelming enough to cause a break in the linkage and meaning of experience, in narrative memory, and even in body processing. When an event cannot be assimilated into the rest of the experiencing self, it becomes, as Pierre Janet so well described a fixed idea that is isolated and disconnected from the rest of the self.” (Howell, pp.30-31, 2020)

Why is it important that art museums understand trauma and implement trauma informed guidelines, practices and processes?

The simple answer is because art museums are places where people come together, people with diverse life experiences, perspectives, interests, abilities, learning styles, identities AND traumas. Art museums are spaces where many nervous systems come together, in various levels of activation, navigating a dense landscape of art and sensory inputs. And ideally art museums are much more than a building where art is put on view, but places where people are invited to show up as their authentic selves and enter into dialogue with the art, one another and with themselves internally.  Art has long been an outlet to communicate when words fail or are simply not enough. A great deal of art has been born out of traumatic experiences, seeking to process and give voice to what is not easily put into words.  When art is created and viewed, it breaks through the isolation under which it might have been created and opens up the door to healing. Art connects with people in emotional and visceral ways, sometimes stirring something in us that we have yet to explore or perhaps even triggering past or current trauma. Art can connect to parts of the unconscious, open our eyes to our own truths, speak to our own suffering and offer new perspectives. Art always connects to place and time, echoing something back from the moment it was created. Art is never silent. Viewing art, particularly in the communal space of the museum, can be just as much a part of the healing process as its creation might be for the artist.

Large art institutions often welcome people from around the world and their doorsteps, both onsite and online. These museums have a responsibility to acknowledge the present moment and the life events collectively witnessed and/or experienced.  It’s just as important for staff at museums to have space and time to come together and connect with one another as it is for the museums to connect to their audiences in meaningful and diverse ways.  Museums must be responsive to the times we live in and the ever-changing needs of  audiences (those who come through the doors and those who don’t), listening rather than making assumptions about those needs.  

In many cases, art museums onsite visitorship does not reflect the racial and economic diversity of the locations they are situated in, this is particularly true of those located in densely populated cities, however they are often able to reach a more diverse audience online.  MoMA, for example, has an expansive reach online, that has continued to grow during the coronavirus pandemic, and is reaching new audiences. For many people, engaging with a museum online is more accessible than an in-person visit and/or marks the first step in greater engagement with the institution (perhaps eventually leading to an onsite visit). The trauma-informed art museum does not serve “only” a few people, it considers the well-being of the whole and creates spaces and opportunities for healing, connecting, creating, feeling, learning, sharing and transforming in ways that gently support individual inclinations. A trauma informed art museum does more than acknowledge trauma, it recognizes it, works to connect people to a shared humanity and fosters cultural humbleness, refrains from othering, avoids retraumatization and puts the physical, emotional and mental well-being of people above all else. 

A trauma-informed art museum considers and asks:

  1. By accepting that everyone has trauma and that some people are impacted more severely by it, what can we do to contribute to the conditions of healing and recovery? How can the museum be part of the healing process, thinking creatively, transparently and inclusively about this? 
  2. How can we help to understand the impact of trauma on our visitors and colleagues and how trauma experiences might manifest so that we are better able to be understanding, supportive and nimble enough to meet people where they are?  How might we consider trauma in our planning and programming efforts to ensure we are inclusive and accessible?
  3. People with trauma disorders often face stigma from the lack of information and/or from misinformation, especially when they have additional mental health diagnoses. Growing our own awareness can help break down some of this stigma. What are some steps we can take to break down stigma, individually and collectively? How might we better support people facing stigma and why is it important to do so?
  4. The grounding skills, coping strategies and somatic exercises often used in treating people with trauma disorders are helpful to anyone who experiences trauma in their lifetime.  If we all learn these skills we can better self-regulate and also help co-regulate those who may be struggling, whether a colleague or a visitor. Over time these efforts can increase our emotional capacities which reduces personal suffering and also frees us up to help others.

What does all this look like in practice? 

There are many guidelines to trauma informed principles, some organizations (in healthcare, education, the arts etc.) tailoring the principles to their individual missions but all of them at their core seek to do no harm by establishing a culture that promotes healing. Of all the trauma informed guiding principles I’ve read to date, the ones outlined by Nkem Ndefo, creator of the Resilience Toolkit, resonates with me the most and seems most appropriate for a public institution such as a museum. As Nkem Ndefo explains, these trauma informed guidelines are principles for living a humane life. These 6 principles include: 1) Safety 2) Trust and Transparency 3) Collaboration and Mutuality 4) Peer Support 5)  Voice, Choice, Self Agency 6) Cultural Humility.”  When you think about a museum and all of the people who are impacted by it, visitors and staff, these guidelines make perfect sense. 

It’s worth noting at this point that over a year ago the Education Department at MoMA went through several workshops to update our core values and collectively landed on the following as being key to the work we do: 1) Empowerment – honor people’s experiences. Share power. 2) Empathy – Build relationships. Foster Understanding. 3) Radicality – Challenge norms. 4) Embrace questioning. Think anew. 5) Creativity – Take risks. Value imagination and experimentation 6) Joy – Work with presence, passion and authenticity.  These core values could complement trauma informed practices if considered through that lens.

Trauma informed practices prioritize people, in the case of a museum this includes visitors AND staff. Creating safe spaces, fostering empowerment and actively listening are a big part of this, as well as recognizing the intersectionality that exists in all of our lives.  When thinking about programming, meetings, and other experiences at the museum trauma informed guidelines might look something like this:

  1. Create moments of calm and establish practices that promote groundedness, tolerance (of sensations, differing perspectives), presence (in the moment), intentionality, and radical acceptance, using art as a jumping off point and/or as inspiration
  2. Offer a range of activities and prompts that increase a sense of connectedness to self and others, focusing on themes of community, collaboration and internal peace
  3. Help grow empathy and compassion for self and others using a range of modalities, particularly reflection and visualization 
  4. Share skills/tools/coping mechanisms for dealing with stress, uncertainty, and intense emotions or reactions through practices and activities that encourage self-awareness and attunement
  5. Offer activities, suggestions, and experiences which help people be in the moment and grow their individual resilience and capacity for managing difficult circumstances, emotions, or thoughts 
  6. Facilitate exchange which validates personal and collective experiences, allowing individuals to create meaning using their own life narratives while opening the door to new perspectives and different narratives, strengthening their understanding and compassion for themselves and others as well
  7. Encourage people to respect where they are, and where others are, in any given moment (to check-in with themselves) and to enter into new experience with curiosity

Some of this involves shifts in our language, experimenting with new program formats, the pacing of programs and how we collaborate with one another (including working with new people and fresh ideas), but it’s also about flexibility, being aware of our own nervous systems and how they interact with others, regulating our emotions, modelling and mirroring embodied presence and awareness, and perhaps most importantly creating and holding space for one another.

This is NOT about museum staff being therapists or doing work that they do not have expertise in, this is asking that the museum operate in a more humane and holistic manner so that all staff feel encouraged to contribute to these efforts. Within the context of a program, trauma informed practices can feel therapeutic but they are not a substitute for a therapy program.

Why does it matter?

Trauma informed practices and principles acknowledge humanity and are beneficial to all, including those with acute trauma disorders, people who have experienced trauma in the past but have moved through it and everyone in between. Universal Design principles for multi-modal engagement is something that museum education has championed for years, because  it benefits everyone, not just people with disabilities. Trauma informed practices similarly have universal benefits.

Systemic change cannot happen unless people feel safe, and in order to effect transformative cultural change trauma informed principles must be adopted museum-wide and used as a guide. Using trauma informed practices in one department, while significant, will not have as big an impact as a museum where trauma informed principles are taken up museum-wide. For example, a small group of us in the Education Department at MoMA have started an initiative called Artful Practices for Well-Being and have been meeting since May to discuss experiences with art through the lens of trauma-informed practices. The conversations and efforts have been encouraging but they are not enough.

Museums are spaces where individual and collective narratives make contact, whether that’s the art and the stories attached to works, audiences that visit onsite or online, or the staff who work there. Trauma is present within some of those narratives, which might rise to the surface through the interactions at a museum, and those should not be ignored or silenced. Trauma informed practices acknowledge the traumas that filter into museum spaces, rather than setting them aside or avoiding them. Museums can and should be safe-enough places, as Ross Laird outlines, where emotions can be felt and traumas can be held, where people are invited to reflect, share their thoughts and offered choices in how they move through and engage with the museum, and feel supported in personally meaningful exploration.

In my understanding and imagining of what a trauma informed art museum could be, I always think about it as a nurturing environment, one where the experience of everyone is thoughtfully considered and the people who visit and work there are recognized for all that they bring with them, including the weight of trauma.  A trauma informed art museum experience ensures that we all have space and resources to make meaning, connect and heal, as individuals and in community with one another.  Museums should be places where everyone who wishes to be there feels a sense of belonging and feels called upon and empowered to show up as their best selves, but where the practices and principles in place help to regulate our nervous systems when we are not feeling our best. A trauma informed art museum unites us in our shared humanity but validates and makes space for the individual truths and lived experiences we all carry.

Here’s a quote I keep coming back to that I hope you will find inspiration in as well:

“What would it look like to belong in the world as our whole selves? What kinds of culture, knowledge and community structures would we be able to create if we could nurture one another without our armor on, if we could draw out and develop the gits in one another, if we could care for another in concrete, meaningful ways, and could protect one another from systemic harms and forms of structural violence, even as we’re struggling to dismantle them? What do we already have waiting within us that can guide us in that direction?” (Nora Samaran, p.14, Turn This World Inside Out: The Emergence of Nurturance Culture)

About the Author

JACKIE ARMSTRONG is the Associate Educator, Visitor Research and Experience at The Museum of Modern Art where she works cross-departmentally planning, coordinating, conducting and sharing the results of visitor research and evaluation, as well as working on other initiatives and interpretive resources. She leads Audiences Advocates, a cross-departmental group that uses agile evaluation to inform the design process, specifically of digital resources. Most recently, Jackie has been busy co-leading Artful Practices for Well-Being, a new initiative stemming from her passion for considering trauma informed practices in museum work. Previously, she served as the Audience Researcher in the Education Department at the Art Gallery of Ontario. She completed an MA in Museum Studies at the University of Toronto and has completed studies in Classics: Ancient Art and Archaeology, Anthropology, and Tourism Management Systems. Jackie is interested in the ways in which museums can connect with diverse publics, create thoughtfully designed experiences, and empower people to make personal meaning through their encounters with art, one another and their personal life histories. As an advocate for visitors she believes strongly in using evaluation methods to help museums make informed decisions for improving the visitor experience and taking the time to really listen to people. Jackie has presented at MCN, VSA, AAM and NYCMER, as well as written for several museum publications.

Increasingly, Jackie is drawing on her personal experiences with trauma and mental health as she works on healing, using her insights, knowledge and research to advocate for others and inform her work in the museum. Jackie is a regular contributor to The Mighty and is looking forward to doing more advocacy work in the future as she moves along in her own recovery. When not working on visitor research, writing or reading, you can find Jackie engaged in therapy, trying out new ice cream flavors, painting, spending quality time with friends, exploring NYC and watching past episodes of Survivor.

Jackie’s postings on this site are her own and don’t represent the Museum of Modern Art’s positions, strategies, or opinions.

Works Cited:

Haines, Staci K. (2019). Somatucs, Healing, and Social Justice: The Politics of Trauma. Berkeley, California. North Atlantic Books.

Howell, Elizabeth. (2020). Trauma and Dissociation Informed Psychotherapy; Relational Healing and the Therapeutic Connection. New York, New York. W. W. Norton and Company.

Laird, Ross. (2020). Mental Health Considerations for Museums: An Emerging Field of Practice and Discovery. Adapted from Museum Objects, Health and Healing, by Brenda Cowan, Ross Laird,, and Jason McKeown.

Ndefo, Nkem. (2020). Nkem Ndefo on Trauma and Resilience (#113). CHITHEADS from Embodied Philosophy (Podcast). New York, New York.

Samaran, Nora. (2019) Turn This World Inside Out: The Emergence of Nurtance Culture. Chico, Edinburgh. AK Press.

Other Works that Have Informed Thinking:

Chefetz, Richard A. 2015. Intensive Psychotherapy for Persistent Dissociative Processes: The Fear of Feeling Real. New York, New York. W. W. Norton and Company. 

Dixon, Ejeris, and Leah Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, Editors. (2020). Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement. Edinburgh, Scotland. AK Press. 

Evans, Amanda, and Patricia Coccoma. (2017). Trauma-informed Care: How Neuroscience Influences Practice. New York, New York. Routledge.

Fisher, Janina. (2017). Healing the Fragmented Selves of Trauma Survivors: Overcoming Internal Self-Alienation. New York, New York. Routledge.

Foreigner, Christine C. (2017).  Dissociation, Mindfulness, and Creative Meditations: Trauma-informed Practices to Facilitate Growth. New York, New York. Routledge.

Goulding, Regina A. and Richard Schwartz.  1995. The Mosaic Mind: Empowering the Tormented Selves of Child Abuse Survivors. New York. New York. W. W. Norton and Company.

Herman, Judith. 1992. Trauma and Recovery: The Aftermath of Violence – From Domestic Abuse to Political Terror. New York, New York. Basic Books.

Levine, Peter A. (2010). In An Unspoken Voice: How the Body Releases Trauma and Restores Goodness. Berkeley, California. North Atlantic Books.

Levine, Peter A. (2015). Trauma and Memory: Brain and Body in a Search for the Living Past, A Practical Guide for Understanding and Working with Traumatic Memory. North Atlantic Books.

Linklater, Renee. (2014). Decolonizing Trauma Work: Indigenous Stories and Strategies.  Blackpoint, Nova Scotia. Fernwood Publishing.

Mate, Gabor. (2003). When the Body Says No: Exploring the Stress-Disease Connection. Nashville, Tennessee. Turner Publishing Company.

Menakem, Resmaa. (2017).  My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. Las Vegas, Nevada. Central Recovery Press.

Porges, Stephen W. (2017). The Pocket Guide to the Polyvagal Theory: The Transformative Power of Feeling Safe. New York, New York. W. W. Norton and Company.

Spring, Carolyn. (2019). Unashamed: Healing Trauma-Based Shame through Psychotherapy. 3 Archers Court, Huntingdon, UK: Carolyn Spring Publishing.

Steele, Kathy, Onno van der Hart, and Suzette Boon. (2011). Coping with Trauma-Related Dissociation: Skills Training for Patients and Therapists. New York, New York. W. W. Norton and Company.

Treleaven, David A. (2018). Trauma Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing. New York, New York. W. W. Norton and Company.

Van Der Kolk, Bessel. (2014). The Body Keeps the Score: Brain, Mind and Body in the Healing of Trauma. New York, New York. Penguin Books.

Van Marter Souers, Kristin, and Pete Hall. (2018) Relationship, Responsibility and Regulation: Trauma-invested Practices for Fostering Resilient Learners.  Alexandria, VA. ASCD.

Walker, Pete. (2013). Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving. An Azure Coyote Book.

Wiley, Meredith S., and Robin Karr-Morse. (2012). Scared Sick: The Role of Childhood Trauma in Adult Disease. New York, New York. Basic Books.

Header Photo: Dan Meyers, Unsplash

Art Therapy at the Manchester Museum

Written by Chloe Sykes

This guest post from Chloe Sykes, Art Therapist Trainee, is reposted with persmission from the Manchester Museum’s hello future blog.

As a trainee art psychotherapist, I was very fortunate to be offered my final placement at Manchester Museum in the UK. As it has come to an end, I have been asked to write a blog post reflecting on my time at the museum. But first, I will briefly explain what an art therapist does.

Art therapy (or art psychotherapy – both are protected and interchangeable titles) is a mental health intervention and has the scope to be utilised in many different ways. Some people engage in art therapy with no previous art making experience but want to explore and connect to their thoughts and feelings in a creative way.

Using art materials during the therapy session can allow someone to find meaningful ways to explore any difficulties and/or develop new self care and resilience tools. It is my role to be alongside them during this journey, ensuring the person feels safe, seen and understood.

Image1
Image 1: Reflective image exploring the role of the art therapist in create a safe space for a client.

Image 1 explores how it is the art therapist’s role to ensure the therapy space feels safe, protected and secure (shown by the blue outer circle). This allows a client to feel like they are somewhere that they can express their thoughts and feelings freely (like the centre of image 1, with the free-flowing colours and textures, feelings and thoughts, remaining held by the blue circle).

During my experiences prior to and throughout my training, I have developed a keen passion for working with different communities. I believe that a person’s mental health and well-being can be influenced by how we engage socially and individually. Unfortunately, mental health is sometimes hard to navigate and can often be daunting to experience alone. Therefore, it is exciting to see and be part of a cultural establishment that is actively making space for mental health and well-being. I truly do believe there is a place for health and well-being to be offered alongside the learning that is already available for communities; these cultural organisations have a great opportunity to bring people together through exploring the arts and our history. It is through this sense of coming together and sharing experiences, when paired up with creativity, that culture can have a powerful positive effect on a person’s well-being.

The Manchester Museum is already known for doing amazing work, engaging in various ways, with many local communities and organisations. This is something that clearly aligns well with my own passions. So, at the very start of the placement, time was spent considering where art therapy could lay within the museum and their already existing outreach partnerships. It seemed natural to introduce an art therapy service that would be offered to the organisation as well as their participants.

The planned art therapy sessions were to be held within the museum; regular sessions making artwork and exploring museum objects, in a way that would relate to how a client was potentially thinking and feeling. However, as the ripple effects of COVID-19 took hold, the shape of the placement at the museum had to adapt to the ‘new normal’. As people and organisations took the necessary time to adapt to the new unknown, it seemed appropriate to adjust where art therapy could lie during these times at the museum. A new direction was taken to offer virtual art therapy sessions to the museum staff and volunteers during the lockdown.

Each week I have been facilitating individual art therapy sessions for staff and volunteers through video conferencing. In spite of meetings being held virtually, they have still been very beneficial in many ways. A simple example of this has been how simply having a weekly time scheduled for meetings has given a much-needed sense of routine during a time when everything else seems so unknown. Also, knowing that there is a protected hour each week to reflect on any difficulties can be very powerful for some, it can feel like a beneficial space to breathe and pause.

As a trainee art therapist, facilitating something as personal and intimate as therapy over video calling needed to be carefully thought about. Because video calling can sometimes feel distant and strange, it was important to make some adaptations in light of this shift onto online delivery. Under normal circumstances, sharing the same space in therapy allows for a sense of safety and trust.

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Image 2: Reflective image of connecting in a therapeutic space virtually.

Image 2 (above) explores the ideas of sharing a space and time whilst being in a different place. Moving online, it was important to still have ways to feel like we were sharing the same safe space, despite being at separate locations, finding a way to feel connected. I introduced the use of lighting a candle at the beginning of each session (seen in the centre of the drawing). This allowed for us both to know that we had entered into the same shared space (connecting our separate spaces together through the candles). Blowing out the candles also brought the session to a close in unity; it also was a reminder of returning back to our own homes and metaphorically stepping out of the shared space.

Grounding exercises were useful for some, as it helped to bring the mind back into the virtual therapy space and similarly, back into their homes at the end of the session. Much like a commute, where we have some space to allow our minds to return to where we were before.

Once we had virtually entered into the shared space, art making through various materials was used as a way to explore any thoughts or feelings for the clients. Sometimes, even online museum collections or galleries were used, with reflective chats about what those images meant for the person. The images (made or found) were reflected on, discussing what feelings, thoughts or sometimes memories were brought forward, or sometimes an imaginative narrative would be given to the piece(s).

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The creativity and presence of a therapist allows for expression of sometimes powerful emotions to be discovered, seen, felt and shared. This can be a very healing process which is what the image 3 above explores. Clients often come to therapy feeling overwhelmed or stuck, seen in the left-hand side of the drawing.  During the course of therapy, these overwhelming feelings and areas where they feel stuck can be explored and begin to be understood, so that the client no longer feels overwhelmed or stuck. Instead, hopefully they will be able to recognise their feelings/thoughts/behaviours and understand what they mean (the right hand side of the drawing).

Another way that art making can help with growth is through the use of experimenting with art materials in a space that feels secure. Playing with art making, making mistakes and finding new ways to use the materials can allow self-esteem to foster. As materials are like symbolic tools to learn how to use what we already have, uniquely for each person whilst being thought of and supported by the therapist.

Over the past few months it has been a privilege to see how creativity has been used to gain a sense of understanding and bring people together despite being in lockdown. The art therapy for the museum staff and volunteers allowed for any mental health and well-being struggles to be taken on a journey of discovery and growth.

Museum as space of opportunity, creativity & care: A perspective from Spain

Written by Fernando Echarri

In Spain, COVID-19 has caused and is causing sudden and overwhelming social change. Spain is one of the countries in the world that is suffering most from the effects of the pandemic at the moment. Effects that translate into new social and personal challenges, involving many factors including misinformation, manipulation, fear and catastrophism. This situation shakes the foundations of a way of living, of coexisting, of perceiving, of doing, of desiring, of dreaming.

This change has happened practically from one day to the next, when the Spanish Government declared a state of alarm. The change meant the closure of many public and private equipment, including all educational centres and museums. We work at the Museo Universidad de Navarra, located in the north of Spain. It is a recently created university museum of contemporary art (2015). With structures and procedures still being established and, therefore, also with the power of flexibility towards new scenarios. The museum’s closure has been very sudden, with the exhibition “Universes” by the artist David Jiménez just opened in March. It has taken place at the same time that the University has stopped its face-to-face activity, so that university students and other visitors from other segments of the population cannot physically visit the museum or carry out their various cultural and educational programmes.

And how does a university museum of contemporary art adapt to a situation that prevents the public from seeing its exhibitions and carrying out the rest of its cultural programme?

We try to raise 5 criteria that can help answer this question :

1.  It must be faced with a positive mind, which sees this situation as a generator of personal and social change that provides a new space of opportunity.

2.  Learn to work with uncertainty; with a continuous and changing uncertainty that the situation itself generates. Uncertainty that affects everything from the biology of the virus and the evolution of the disease to the political and regulatory measures that are taken and the social perceptions and new forms of behaviour that are being generated in real time. These new forms of behaviour will probably include a new emotional and affective state in terms of the relational aspect between people. And in this new generation of new forms of behaviour, the museum cannot be alien. It cannot miss this train, in a challenge that we do not know where it is going, but in which the museum has to be assembled, to travel together with society, to accompany it in the different situations and contexts that are being generated.

3.  Space for creativity. The uncertainty generated provides in turn a great ally, usually forgotten: creativity. Creativity can be a lifeboat when the waters are turbulent and the known capsizes. The undefined space is built with enabling bricks that are linked to the creative cement. New products are thus generated, at this time digital, that respond with contemporary art to the needs of the users.

4.  To focus on the value Care. This value is not usually the focus of most education programmes, and is not usually one of the main values considered in a transversal way in the programmes of museums. However, this word is currently one of the most mentioned in the media and has become one of the key words generated by COVID-19 and which people are taking into account the most. Personal, family and social care is now a trend topic. Perhaps this value has surpassed the value of respect, which is the one most often used in social work. The respect value has fallen short in this situation. If we understand the value respect as the consideration for others, the value care implies respect, but it is more than that value. It also implies concern, protection, solidarity and love.

We could simplify by considering that care = respect + love. In this situation generated by COVID-19, it is clear the numerous evidence of care that is being generated in society. Neighbours who previously did not speak to each other are now wondering how they are doing, how they are handling the situation, if they have any sick relatives, if they need anything. Anonymous people who help other anonymous people. It’s not a minor change. COVID-19 is possibly making society better, more humane. Or maybe it already was, but there were no opportunities to make it so obvious. In order to adapt to this situation, museums should integrate this value into the relational possibilities offered by their various programmes.

munencasa

5.  ‘Stay at home’. This is the communicative message that the Spanish Government is promoting during this period of confinement. This message has forced the Museo Universidad de Navarra to change its communication, dissemination and educational strategy. This new situation is a challenge for the University of Navarra Museum. It means devoting all its efforts to off-site activities. If the visitor does not come to the museum, the museum will look for the visitor. It means taking the museum to the people’s homes. That is why it has created the ‘MUNENCASA’, with the intention of providing artistic, cultural and educational support to the various people and groups that are currently confined.

*     *     *

This impediment to living physically in the museum has made it possible to develop a parallel, virtual museum, which offers users programmes, activities and tools such as virtual visits to the exhibitions, multimedia videos, digital gamification, a blog with recent history and current affairs, and classes for university students and the rest of the population. It also pays continuous attention to the different social networks, publishing not only news. The world of social networks has increased its volume of traffic these days and we must redouble our communication efforts. In record time, digital materials are generated that adapt existing analogue resources. Programmatic resources are generated, both exhibition and educational, which help people through art and culture.

This is what we have to do at this time: to approach each home and accompany, help, and care for our users as much as possible.

Society expects nothing less from us.


Header Image: José Ortiz Echagüe, “Tenura”


About the Author

FERNANDO ECHARRI IRIBARREN holds a degree in Biological Sciences (University of Navarra, 1989) and a PhD in Museum Education (University of Navarra, 2007). He is an associate professor of the University of Navarra (Pamplona, Spain) and teaches in the following areas: “Art Education”, “University Master’s Degree in Higher-Education Teaching” and “University Master’s Degree in Curatorial Studies”. Since 2014, he has been Head of the Education Department at the University of Navarra Museum. His interests include meaningful learning and significant learning experiences.

We the People: The Radical Possibilities of Hope for Museum Learning

Written by Michelle Dezember

“Art is the highest form of hope.”  —Gerhard Richter

Some of the most exciting conversations I have with the public about art happen right after we open a new exhibition. When I see the artwork installed for the first time, I almost get butterflies noticing elements that seem familiar and foreign. While this romance of discovery is possible after dozens or even hundreds of encounters with an artwork, surely the first experiences are heightened by an awareness of all there is yet to know.

On November 5, 2016, I gave my first tour of a new rotation of exhibitions here at the Aspen Art Museum. It included Danh Võ’s We The People (Detail) (2011) in the museum’s Roof Deck Sculpture Garden, an installation I was eager to discuss. The copper sculpture is part of the artist’s long-term project to re-create the Statue of Liberty in 1:1 scale, but rather than exhibiting the work as a complete reconstruction, Võ exhibits it in pieces around the world. Our group was silent as we approached the sculpture. Even after I shared the artist’s interests and intentions, the four visitors and I scanned the surfaces of the sculpture, knowing there was something more. Something still unknown.

aam2016_danh_vo-1
Danh Võ, We The People (Detail), 2011. Courtesy Lawrence and Joan Altma

The artist John Outterbridge once said, “Art has the audacity to be anything it needs to be at any given time.” As the sensational events of the election would unfold over the next few days, I considered more deeply Võ’s decision for his project to be shown as fragments, incomplete, and against our expectations of the icon’s typical display. I wasn’t so much in search of answers as I was of perspective—to know that I was part of something, much like the piece of a larger puzzle.

hopeinthedark_coverAs I thought about this dichotomy, I remembered Rebecca Solnit’s writings and her ability to capture seemingly contradicting ideas, such as finding oneself in the process of getting lost. Serendipitously, this year, she wrote a new foreword to her 2004 book Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities. Solnit’s treatise on the radical possibilities of hope argues, amongst many other things, that we lose hope because we lose perspective. And just as my encounters with art continuously provide perspective, I believe that they also provide hope.

Hope, like art, is many things to many people. But it also is, quite often, unavailable to many. In a recent Gallup study of K–12 students’ perceptions in my community, Aspen Community Fund’s Cradle to Career Initiative found that local Hispanic students reported much lower on feelings of hopefulness than both white students in the same community and Hispanics across the nation. As I consider how the museum can respond to despair, it is important to recognize what hope is not: it is not a simple solution, nor to escape from reality. In a recent essay for the New Yorker, Junot Díaz responds to a woman who reached out for advice and solidarity:

“But all the fighting in the world will not help us if we do not also hope. What I’m trying to cultivate is not blind optimism but what the philosopher Jonathan Lear calls radical hope. ‘What makes this hope radical,’ Lear writes, ‘is that it is directed toward a future goodness that transcends the current ability to understand what it is.’” (65)

Similarly, Solnit, well versed in the inequalities of our world, does not believe that hope is capable of erasing injustice, but rather “is about broad perspectives with specific possibilities, ones that invite or demand that we act” (xiii). How are these perspectives of hope provided by art?

To propose the power of hope for the practice of art museum education, I have drawn from Solnit’s writings to select three conditions that are necessary for its survival.

1. TIME

Twenty-four-hour cable news networks propagate a desire for immediacy, as does social media’s ability to constantly refresh content. How does this urgency affect our ability to reflect? Perhaps newness ignores the generosity of history, forgetting the lessons learned through even the most challenging moments. To revisit the popular proverb “time heals all wounds,” it is important to recognize that what we do with this time determines how we may benefit. If we are to passively await a solution, then we dwell in the state of victimhood. But by recognizing our participation in a continuum of unfolding of actions, we are offered the bountiful gift of history. This also applies to having hope, which can be positioned as movement toward a positive, healing future.

Solnit identifies the ground condition for hope as the belief that anything is possible because we have no guarantee of what our futures hold. Time is a necessary ingredient to progress, for it allows us to prove our commitment to our values as we respond to challenges. Having hope asserts that we matter and our aspirations matter through our sustained engagement with them. It also, however, needs to embrace the fact that we might not know our impact for some time. As Solnit explains:

“It’s the belief that what we do matters even though how and when it may matter, who and what it may impact, are not things we can know beforehand.” (xiv)

This suggestion runs counter to many learning evaluation strategies, which often seek to immediately understand the outcomes of our programs that we design around or measure against. Having hope requires patience, for the fruits of our efforts may only be discernible far into the future, if we stay dedicated and attentive.

2. CONTRADICTION

Hope is equally weighted in the present as much as the future. Emily Pringle, Head of Learning Practice and Research at the Tate, is a critical friend with whom I exchange conversations about our field. She once explained the dangers of worry, which by its nature takes us out of the present, either by reliving the past or by forecasting the future. This is not to say that the past and future are unworthy of attention, but rather that productive means of addressing them can be found from the vantage point of the present. araponraceIn 1970, anthropologist Margaret Mead sat with writer and social critic James Baldwin in a public discussion later published as A Rap on Race. During their conversation, Baldwin quotes a poem written by an incarcerated teen who had effectively lost all hope. Baldwin’s stance on the preservation of hope was to say, “If we don’t manage the present, there will be no future.” The coexistence of our attention on these contradictions is precisely the dynamic that makes growth possible.

To be whole, we must recognize that we are fragments. Võ’s We The People is an extraordinary example of embracing contradiction: a monumental figure in a small scale, a symbol of unity shown as a fragment, a familiar icon that is not entirely recognizable. Solnit equally encourages us to resist the desire to consider our world as static, and rather, to appreciate its dynamic inconsistencies. She uses the example of paradise, which in her opinion is not a fixed place, but rather the very pursuit of it through hope. More plainly put, “Perfection is a stick with which to beat the possible” (77). It is possibility that gives us purpose, and it is imperfection and not knowing that allows us to learn.

3. UNKNOWABLE

As social creatures, it is rarely enough to accept that we don’t know—we constantly strive to make sense of the world and our place in it. And while it is easier for us to grasp that the future is not yet written, it is more challenging to posit that history does not have a conclusion. Artists candidly embrace that which they do not know about the past, present, and future in order to make works that show us something in an entirely new light.

Just as art begins with not knowing, so should our experience of it. Within this context, we return to hope, which is neither optimistic nor pessimistic, but retains qualities of both in order to navigate the unknown. Solnit elaborates saying:

“Hope is an embrace of the unknown and the unknowable, an alternative to the certainty of both optimists and pessimists. Optimists think it will all be fine without our involvement; pessimists take the opposite position; both excuse themselves from acting.” (xiv)

The two qualities are necessary: optimism (often conflated with hope) believes in progress; and pessimism believes in a need for caution. While the Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci was imprisoned for his neo-Marxists beliefs from 1926–35, he maintained sanity through covert writings that were later published as The Prison Notebooks. In them, he wrote that he found hope through “the pessimism of the intellect, [and] optimism of the will.” Similarly, how can we find hope in difficult moments with our museum learners? According to Gramsci and Solnit, the key is embracing that which we do not know. We must not take any knowledge as a given, but rather observe it as cautiously as a pessimist and as unguardedly as an optimist.

As art museum educators, it is not enough to recognize the power or responsibility that we have to positively influence our learners. We must act to create opportunities for them to find hope. Art provides a wonderful vehicle for us to do this, functioning much like an activist. When we engage our community with art, we make producers of meaning, not simply consumers. Solnit summarizes our call to action:

“How do people recognize that they have the power to be storytellers, not just listeners? Hope is the story of uncertainty, of coming to terms with the risk involved in not knowing what comes next, which is more demanding than despair and, in a way, more frightening. And immeasurably more rewarding.” (7)

How can we give more time for hope to play out? Where do we embrace contradictions, and where do we shy away? How can we find power in not knowing?

About the Author

michelle-dezemberMICHELLE DEZEMBER is the Learning Director at the Aspen Art Museum, where she oversees all aspects of education, public programs, and interpretive projects. Previously, she was Deputy Director of Programming and Special Projects at Mathaf: Arab Museum of Modern Art in Qatar, where she also served as Acting Director and Head of Education. She has also worked as a museum educator in California and New York, and as a Fulbright scholar at the Museum of the History of Immigration in Barcelona. She holds a dual degree in Art History and Sociology from Santa Clara University, a diploma in Visual Cultural Studies from the University of Barcelona, and an MA in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester.

Featured Header Image: Participants of Aspen Art Museum’s Art Studio after-school workshop for K–4 grades working on a collective artwork inspired by Danh Võ’s We The People.