Therapeutic Objects at the Derby Museums

Our most treasured possessions evoke powerful emotions within us. In what ways can these emotions be therapeutic? How might we use objects to help us heal from trauma and cultivate well-being?

This research project is the third phase of work that began at the National September 11 Memorial and Museum to explore the role of therapeutic objects in trauma healing. This new phase, which was conducted in partnership with the Derby Museums Trust, was focused on objects of love and affection. As with the 911 project, some of the objects at Derby were associated with trauma in one form or another (and with war, in particular), but these objects were nonetheless also associated with healing, growth, and personal fulfillment. Trauma and love are often companions on the human journey, of course, and this dynamic was much in evidence in Derby. Our interviews with Syrian refugees and with family members who shared objects of war remembrance were particularly poignant in this way.

At the same time, many of the objects were associated with joy, innocence, creativity, nostalgia, and similar themes. Artist Tim Shore (pictured above, at right, during the interview) shared his pebble, medallion, cake decorations, and brass windmill. These are excellent examples of objects which embody positive meanings while also carrying great complexity and tenderness. As Tim notes, his objects “are central to [his] sense of self and extremely important to [his] practice.” His reflections on the process of sharing and the meaning of the objects themselves are powerfully insightful:

Their materiality is somehow important to the story, not in terms of plot or meaning, but because they are things that I want to touch and hold, they are things that retain the power to push through the projected film plane and connect with the audience.

The objects of love are all ‘poor’ things, not necessarily simple, but made from ordinary materials. Or not made in the case of the stone, found on a beach in Dorset when I was a child. The plastic robins and the brass windmill are both products of complex industrial processes. Only the plaster of paris medallion was made by me at middle school, from a crudely constructed clay form. So I have to think carefully about what I mean by poor things and making.

The Derby Museums have developed a highly innovative approach to museum practices in which visitors are encouraged to interact directly with objects: to touch, sense, and feel the resonances of human creativity in their own hands. Unlike a traditional museum context, in which all objects are behind glass and protected from the messiness of human activity, the Derby Museums encourage the community to participate more actively in curation and education, to take ownership of the cultural artifacts in its midst. Derby Museums staff have taken objects into the street, as a kind of curatorial outreach, and they have worked hard to cultivate a team of dedicated volunteers to explore and extend this work. These innovations are the result of the efforts of Andrea Hadley-Johnson, Head of Coproduction Display, and her team (in particular, we worked with Rachel, Jane, Chevy, and Joe), all of whom work closely with Tony Butler, Executive Director of the Derby Museums and founder of the Happy Museum Project. Andrea, Tony, and their colleagues are keenly focused on the role that museums can – and should – play in the health and well-being of communities. It was a great experience to work with them and to hear about their vision for museum renewal and transformation.

Our object interviews took place in the World Cultures Gallery, which was a hive of activity during the week that Jason, Brenda, and I were there. The museum staff were friendly, helpful, and enthusiastic, and the many volunteers and visitors we spoke with were keen to hear about and participate in our work.

Next Steps

Our research team has now completed three sets of interviews: at the 911 Museum, at the War Childhood Museum, and at the Derby Museums. We’ve conducted over 50 interviews about the role of objects in health and healing. We’ve asked more than 300 questions about how people feel about objects, and we’ve seen consistent and emergent themes in the ways that people feel and act in relation to objects of special meaning:

Releasing/Unburdening: letting go of a meaningful object in an intentional or transformative way.

Making: creating an original object for the purpose of exploring or enhancing creativity and wellbeing.

Synergizing: contributing an object to a collection so that the meaning of the object becomes more profound through association with the collection.

Composing: bringing objects together so that they express meanings more profound than what one object can express on its own.

Giving/Receiving: offering a meaningful gift to someone who receives it and shares an understanding of the meaning.

Associating: keeping an object close, as a reminder of its meaning.

These themes – and how their intentional expression forms the basis of the therapeutic roles that objects fulfill in our lives – will be explored more fully in our upcoming book. We plan to begin writing the book over the next few months and hope to have it published in 2019. For more information about this and related museum projects, please feel free to get in touch.

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