Therapeutic Objects at the 9/11 Museum and Beyond

The Meaning and Use of Personal Objects in Complex Trauma

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A shard of steel from the World Trade Center, held in the palm of a First Responder.

Originally published in the journal of the National Association for Museum Exhibition, by Ross Laird, Brenda Cowan, and Jason McKeown.


Tragedy strikes New York on September 11, 2001. Afterwards, survivors, first responders and victims’ relatives experience the healing impact of donating personal objects to what will become the 9/11 Memorial Museum. A family legacy continues and wellbeing is enhanced when a grandmother gifts her wedding ring to her granddaughter, who likewise wears it as her own. A pocketknife complicates a busy man’s travels, always forcing him to check his luggage or Fedex it ahead to his destination because without it he experiences a feeling of loss. In a therapeutic session on a mountaintop, a teenager communicates her feelings by composing sticks, leaves and stones into a message made of objects, conveying through them the thoughts and emotions she can’t put into words. These kinds of rituals and relationships with objects are as old as humanity, begging the question why? Why do people 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 do they foster transpersonal experiences such as heightened creativity, spirituality, and self-awareness?1 What is the primal purpose of these intrinsic relationships, and what can the answer tell us about the power of museum exhibitions? In 2015, driven to explore these questions, Brenda Cowan, associate professor of exhibition design, reached beyond her discipline into the world of psychotherapy, conducting field research in an unlikely place to originate a new theory about objects, health and healing titled Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics.2 The theory attributes the human-object relationship to wellbeing and healing, and coalesces around fundamental scholarship and practice in museum studies, psychology and therapy. Consisting of five human-object actions, 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.

Trails Carolina was the site of the initial field research, an adolescent wilderness facility in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains that incorporates objects within its therapies with remarkable healing results.3 At Trails, objects are used by students and their therapists as milestone markers and witness-bearers, as well as devices for contextualization, communication and expression. These meaning-making exercises with objects provided the basis for examining the psychological underpinnings of the human-object relationship, and revealed interesting points of convergence between object-based therapeutic practice and fundamental understandings in museum studies. Through associating with and engaging in activities with simple objects such as twigs, stones, beads and string, students at Trails develop self awareness, explore identity, and gain insights into the world around them. These effects are profoundly similar to the meaning-making experiences people have with objects in exhibitions, suggesting that if these dynamics are healthful and healing in therapeutic settings, perhaps they could likewise promote mental health in the museum setting.

George Hein and Lois Silverman have established that exhibitions foster meaning making where objects hold the power to illustrate, explain, captivate and enable visitors to relate to content in a personally significant manner.4 Objects hold the same potency in the therapies at Trails. Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi’s definition of overarching psychological object characteristics including power (vitality and energy), self (personal identity and continuum), and society (relationship and hierarchy),5 has provided a framework through which museum professionals can examine human-object relationships and the impacts of exhibitions. These psychological and societal object associations also underpin object-based psychotherapy. The museum literature includes Sherry Turkle’s definitions of objects as evocative silent partners, life companions, repositories for memory and history, and provocateurs of action;6 meaning-making characteristics that are applied within therapeutic processes. In their Object Knowledge Framework, Kirsten Latham and Elizabeth Wood have defined multidimensional people-object relationships in museum environments and identified interrelationships between theories in phenomenology and the ways in which humans on an instinctual level seek to make meaning out of objects. Their Framework asserts four key object experience characteristics including Unity of the Moment; Object Link (objects as repositories); Being Transported (the transpersonal); and Connections Bigger than Self (numinous qualities including reverence, spirituality and connections with higher things);7 experiences that can occur within the phases of object-based therapy.

These correlations emerged during interviews at Trails with staff therapists, the Director of Clinical and Family Services Jason McKeown, and during observations of therapy sessions in the mountains. The field research also included an enlightening interview in British Columbia with Ross Laird, professor of psychology, counseling, and creative writing, who provided insights into the relationship between therapy, object making, and power of the creative process. This cross-disciplinary journey inspired the theory of Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics’ premise that the human-object relationship is necessary and inherent to health, healing and wellbeing, and therefore, as human-object forums rich in meaning-making, exhibitions could likewise foster psychological wellbeing and healing. With a new theory to explore, a vital collaboration was formed and Cowan, Laird and McKeown joined forces to see if and how museums can indeed be places of health and healing.

Seeking Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics in the Museum Setting

In 2016 the new team sought examples of the theory outside of the therapeutic setting, performing a case study interviewing object donors to the National September 11 Memorial Museum, a venue whose unique collection-donor relationship suggested explicit demonstrations of the theory. Their intent was to seek evidence in this setting where donors consider the institution an ally and protector that is helping to mend a shaken society through the collecting of personal objects. On behalf of the researchers the institution sent out a voluntary call to a prospective interview population resulting in participants including five widows, three survivors (including one who also lost a husband and one who lost a cousin), one mother who lost a son, one first responder, and one on-location journalist. It was critical that the interviews were conducted as a team, with Ross Laird and Jason McKeown providing necessary expertise with sensitive content in therapeutic settings and with victims of trauma. (Note: a museum interested in conducting studies based on the Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics should use caution to collaborate with experts in therapy.) The interviewing methodology utilized a heuristic approach generating 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 weight, which can be reasonably said for all of the subjects interviewed. Subjects referred to the 9/11 Memorial Museum as a trusted place where their objects will be kept safe and protected, and in that regard the institution is 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.”8

Objects and Exhibitions as a Means of Mending

The researchers found that people in vastly different life situations experience relationships with objects that match the themes and steps of the therapeutic process. Both at Trails and in the case study, people 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 titled Releasing/Unburdening, Associating, Giving/Receiving, Composing and Making, and 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. Examples of this dynamic are seen at Trails when students assign a psychological burden to a rock which they carry until they are ready to move into the next stages of healing. They will throw away, crush, or even burn the rock in an act of unburdening. Using an object to eliminate life-restricting feelings of fear or hate becomes an action of deep change and growth, a reminder that the experience no longer holds power over them. Field director Shane Dixon explained, “It is in the letting go that the power comes. And the power comes.” Similarly, donors to the 9/11 Memorial Museum demonstrated the Releasing/Unburdening 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 bankcards. One takeaway for museums is that institutions receiving donations of personal objects, or designing exhibitions where audiences contribute objects as part of their visit, could 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 have an indomitable spirit, fostering resilience, stability, endurance, and belonging. At Trails students will receive a bead acknowledging a milestone in their therapeutic growth and wear it throughout their stay, and even after they leave. With the bead they associate their achievement of personal growth. In the object donor case study Associating was likewise demonstrated: “This is the newest 9/11 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 [I didn’t donate to the museum] from my wallet 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 being 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. At Trails some students offer their bow drill kits to their parents, which is an act of sharing their story, their primal power, and seeking continuance with the family. Refusal provides another illustration of the dynamic. Jason McKeown explained: “When a parent rejects the kid’s object it’s like they’re rejecting their kid.” 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. At Trails, students were observed grouping and juxtaposing objects to communicate feelings, dynamics and events that they were trying to understand and explain yet couldn’t fully verbalize. In the case study, a survivor who donated items associated with his escape from the 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. Ross Laird explained, “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.” At Trails, a capstone achievement involves making the tools and developing the skills required to make fire from sticks, stones, and string, a lengthy and intricate process with a powerful outcome. A wounded journalist who donated her press badge and triage tag to the 9/11 Memorial Museum describes the same 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 value of Making is perhaps obvious to a museum educator, and its healthful and healing impacts 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, and moving forward, the researchers see ways museum developers, designers, educators and audience experts can collaborate with psychologists, therapists and mental health experts to apply the Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics within their own institutions.

The tenents of Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics could be adapted into an evaluation instrument to explore whether current audiences and participants experienced therapeutic impacts from their experiences. Post-visit visitor 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 9/11 Memorial 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.

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 museum audiences and participants. 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.

Selected Sources

  1. Salom, Andree, The Therapeutic Potentials of a Museum Visit (Bogota, Colombia: Sasana Center for Transpersonal Studies, 2009).
  2. Cowan, Brenda, Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics: An Examination of the Primal Dialogue between People and Objects in Therapeutic and Clinical Sociological Practices, and Implications for the Enhancement of Museum Exhibitions (SUNY/Fashion Institute of Technology, 2015).
  3. The Academy at Trails Carolina, Lake Toxaway, NC, www.trailsacademy.com
  4. Hein, George, The Museum in Transition: A Philosophical Perspective (Smithsonian Institution Press 2000). Silverman, Lois H., Meaning-Making Matters: Communication, Consequences, and Exhibit Design (The Exhibitionist 18, The National Association of Museum Exhibitions, 1999).
  5. Csikszentmihalyi, Mihalyi, Why We Need Things: Domestic Symbols and the Self (Cambridge University Press, 1981).
  6. Turkle, Sherry, Evocative Objects: Things We Think With (The MIT Press, 2007).
  7. Latham, Kirsten F., and Wood, Elizabeth, The Objects of Experience: Transforming Visitor-Object Encounters in Museums (Left Coast Press, 2015).

Of relevance is Elizabeth Merritt’s blog post, “Trust Me, I’m a Museum,” (The Center for the Future of Museums, February 3rd, 2015). Merritt indicates that history museums and sites score 6.4 on a national scale from 1-10 as trusted sources for information, education and interpretation, outweighing other information media.

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Ross Laird, PhD RCC

Clinical Consultant, Author, Educator

My work focuses on the interconnected themes of mental health, trauma, addictions, and creativity. I provide clinical consulting, professional development services, and community education for a wide range of institutions and organizations.