Museum Objects, Health and Healing

Read Time: 13 minutes

Published in 2019 by Routledge Taylor & Francis Group, “Museum Objects, Health and Healing: The Relationship between Exhibitions and Wellness, 1st Edition” by authors Brenda Cowan, Ross Laird and Jason McKeown examines intersections of museum object and psychological studies and presents a new theory called Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics.

From the publisher: “Museum Objects, Health and Healing provides an innovative and interdisciplinary study of the relationship between objects, health and healing. Shedding light on the primacy of the human need for relationships with objects, the book explores what kind of implications these relationships might have on the exhibition experience.

Merging museum and object studies, as well as psychotherapy and the psychology of well-being, the authors present a new theory entitled Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics, which provides a cross-disciplinary study of the relationship between objects, health and well-being. Drawing on primary research in museums, psychotherapeutic settings and professional practice throughout the US, Canada, Bosnia-Herzegovina and the UK, the book provides an overview of the theory’s origins, the breadth of its practical applications on a global level and a framework for further understanding the potency of objects in exhibitions and daily life.

Museum Objects, Health and Healing will be essential reading for academics, researchers and postgraduate students interested in museum studies, material culture, mental health, psychotherapy, art therapies and anthropology. It should also be valuable reading for a wide range of practitioners, including curators, exhibition designers, psychologists and psychotherapists.”

Brenda Cowan is a Fullbright Scholar and Associate Professor in the Exhibition and Experience Design Department at the Fashion Institute of Technology, State University of New York. Ross Laird is an independent author, scholar and clinical consultant in Vancouver, British Columbia and Jason McKeown is a Marriage and Family Therapist, Parenting Educator, Clinical Program Consultant and an Adjunct Instructor at Lenior-Rhyne University, Center for Graduate Studies of Asheville, North Carolina.

In support of our three-part series “Exhibitions and Objects of Wellness,” by Cowan, wherein she shares her theory and framework for the connection among people, objects and mental health, the following is an excerpt from “Museum Objects, Health and Healing,” chapter one, Ordinary Portents.


Museum Objects, Health and Healing

Part I Our Primal Dialogue with Objects

P. 25

Ordinary Portents

Stories are maps, repositories of collected wisdom, ciphers, and guides for making sense of the human journey. Whether archaic, prosaic, or postmodern, stories render the paths undertaken by all those who seek resolution and healing. Our work is about objects: their silence and clamor, their inertia and momentum, their patient or pressing presence in the lives of people. A museum is a repository of object stories, colliding and interweaving, carrying forward the embodied past, holding the hardscrabble present, shaping the possible future. In this book we share object stories from our research to illustrate a way of looking into object experiences so as to identify their healing properties. These diverse tales of objects, of their curious and potent power, contain many similarities and many shared moments of discovery.

The small and often quotidian object experiences described in this book are fragments of an ever-evolving tale about what it means to grow, learn, and heal as a human. These stories embody that unfathomable narrative; they share its richness and warmth. They are whole and complete, yet also woven into the larger tales that connect us all. Endless interwoven stories. These are all aspects of the unfolding story of every human and of humanity itself.


There is a moment—you can practically count on it—when the person telling you about an important object in their lives is suddenly struck by the weight of its meaning. They entered into the conversation knowing it was important to them in some way or another; they could associate it with meaningful people, places, or events in their lives; they kept it and cared for it or gifted it or destroyed it. The object equals intent. Nevertheless, you find yourself sitting with them at work, in a cafe, or on the train, and as you listen to them talk about their object and what it means, and why they do with it whatever it is that they do, you can see the point at which they realize their story is suddenly not quite as silly, or ordinary, or superficial as they had thought. Or had hoped. There is usually a pause: the person’s eyes might look down at the table, or they might cock their head slightly, their voice becoming softer. Suddenly they recognize a purpose or a preciousness that they had not been aware of before. And, in turn, perhaps they recognize too, in themselves, something purposeful and precious that they had not seen before.

This moment often comes also in interviews with people who take great pleasure in describing how they don’t keep objects; they don’t like having things, they have no connections or need for stuff. In fact, they give things away all the time. They donate their objects to charity, they re-gift, and they offer the family heirloom to a sibling. They talk about how freeing it is not to have clutter, how good it feels not to have the responsibility of that family heirloom; how nice it is to know that the shoes will be worn by someone who really needs them. And so on. In their proud explanation of how objects don’t have meaning in their lives, and in their various examples of what they do with objects to prove their lack of meaning, these people typically realize that they have just shared many examples of how objects have, indeed, been deeply meaningful to them. Objects have facilitated those feelings of freedom, of release, of making a contribution to a larger need. I am unburdened. I have options and opportunities. I help others.

Talking with people about objects can be like pulling on a tiny thread: one inquiring tug and the story comes free. The thread might slowly un-knit, cautiously, carefully, mindfully, so as not to hit the floor or damage the cloth, and sometimes the thread flows so freely and loosely that you find yourself flat on the ground in a heap and a tangle. And the dynamic is the same at a dinner party or airport lounge as it is in the formal research setting:

Tell me about your object. And so it begins.


Question: What meanings or associations does your object hold for you? Answer: This road atlas was my father’s, and I got it from his things when he died. It’s my childhood and day trips with my family. I have very few objects, and this is a link to growing up and that love. We didn’t go abroad, but we would navigate through the countryside, and this opens up vistas and the country. My father would always drive, and I would navigate in the front seat with this. I remember all the places we would go see, and memories of my father swearing while driving! It’s like I was navigating through my childhood—my world understanding of the time. I can’t let it go. [Slowly flipping through each of the maps, tracing the lines as he talks.] It feels like I’m connected to my memories, my family; I feel like I’m touching the country.

Question: You talk about being the navigator in the car—how much you loved that. Have you ever thought about the relationship between be- ing the navigator as a child and your professional life today? Do you think your love of the road atlas is a metaphor for your work?

Answer: [Pauses thoughtfully, quietly]… I hadn’t thought of that … Yes … I hadn’t thought of that…

Ordinary objects, such as a worn road atlas kept in the trunk of a car, can be portents in our lives; with them we can see, most often in retro- spect, who it is that we have become. Our subject here is indeed the nav- igator that he was as a child. Having once guided his family throughout the English countryside, today, as the founder of a national consortium of museums and heritage sites, he identifies roads and bridges, pathways and connections for institutions dedicated to community building, wellbeing, and sustainability. The mission he set for his organization is momentous, significant in its long view and focus on the health of people and their envi- ronment. Through his work he opens up vistas for the museum profession. In many ways this is a continuation of his mission as a child: to navigate his family’s way throughout the countryside, shaping a shared understanding of the world through a love of people and place.

As our subject talked with us about his father’s old road atlas while gently turning its pages, he was demonstrating an aspect of the psychological state of flow (Csikszentmihalyi 1990) and corresponding elements of the numinous object experience. His attention and energy were focused on the atlas in his hands; he appeared absorbed as memories from his childhood were activated. In his description of “touching the country,” the atlas and his memories felt alive, both symbolically and tangibly.

The materiality of the atlas was mnemonic, triggering reflections, reminiscences, ideas, and meanings via tactile engagement that connected him with his past (Chatterjee and Noble 2013; Dudley 2010). The atlas symbolized his understanding of the world, as a child, and mirrored his passions and experiences as an adult. This focused element of his experience is de- fined as object link (Wood and Latham 2014), which is highly interrelated with flow and the numinous object experience.1 In this simple moment, a man, a book, a past and a present, become a countryside ribboned in lines of blue and red, full of love and possibility.


Question: What made you decide to share your objects?
Answer: I wanted to learn more about why I feel so much about my objects.

I want to be more aware.
Question: What meanings or associations do the objects hold for you?

Answer: My dad. Love. Joy. Moments. I keep the camera that was my dad’s on a bookshelf and I see it every day. It was his constant companion. The continuity of having my father’s camera. I work out some of my feelings when I use it. Beginning the process—of starting the creative process. I think out the image and frame and it’s a process. It’s iterative. The finished speech of the final photograph. It focuses my attention on changes. My feelings.

Question: I noticed, when you came in and sat down, that you placed your two cameras on the table together, their lenses touching. Was that intentional?

Answer: [Pauses, grows quieter] No … I don’t know … I can’t talk about it…

Objects can speak for us of what is unspoken or unspeakable. The museum volunteer arrived for our interview and gently placed two cameras on the table in front of her, their lenses angled towards each other and slightly touching. One was a gift and the other an inheritance. There was a palpable tenderness in her manipulation of the objects. Throughout the interview, she spoke lovingly about her father’s camera, her process for taking photos with it, and what it means to her. As we explored together her thoughts and experiences and asked about her positioning of the two cameras, the mood deepened, and verbal communication wouldn’t—or couldn’t—suffice. The cameras were doing the talking now.

Her juxtaposition and manipulation of the two cameras, and her hesitancy with expressing the meaning of their contextualization in words, brings into consideration anthropologist Pierre Lemonnier’s concept of perrisological resonators (2012).2 Objects, when manipulated within or into a specific context of use or making, become activated, expressive. They communicate without words and can speak the unspoken. Together the objects—and the act of composing them, as the volunteer did—spoke the emotions, thoughts, and feelings that couldn’t be translated into words. Even her description of the final photographs as having “speech” is profound in this way, as is her process-oriented way of taking them. The participant spoke about how she does some of her best work when feeling sad. The use of the camera and the photographs enable her to focus on her feelings and to serve as nonverbal records of her process of recovery and healing. Her journey can be experienced and reflected upon more concretely than through verbal means alone (Camic, Brooker and Neal 2011, 152). The cameras; the way she uses them; how she physically contextualizes them in our setting; the photographs she makes with them: these are all aspects of her voice for things that she cannot say with words. Language would be too abstract. Too removed. Insufficient.

A reflection on object and memory, from a colleague, argues persuasively for the power and lasting impact of objects in our lives:

I grew up in rural Pennsylvania and my friends, mostly Catholic girls, each wore a fantastic little cross on a chain around their neck. I never missed going to a parochial school, but I was terribly envious of the jewelry. At the age of 13, my grandmother (whom I adored and still think of often) bought me a heart-shaped mother-of-pearl pendant, embellished with marcasite and a little Star of David. I finally owned my own religious jewelry to wear around my neck! I’m Jewish, but I grew up in a non-religious home. Although there was no Bat-Mitzvah, 13 is traditionally an important coming-of-age year in Judaism … I have a feeling my grandmother wanted to mark this traditional milestone in her own way.

I wore it all the time, and then I lost it. I looked everywhere, but after a year had passed, I resigned myself to the fact that it was gone. Pennsylvania winters are harsh, with lots of snow, and when the first real day of spring arrives, words cannot describe the sweetness. I sat that early spring day on the edge of the road, enjoying the sun and flowery air. I was fooling around in the dirt with a stick, when I saw it: my pendant was wedged into the crevice where the street meets curb. I couldn’t believe it. It had survived a year, despite snow and sleet and wind and cars skidding out of control. I walked home and showed my mother, and she said, “you can’t lose religious jewelry.” When my granddaughter turns 13, I will give it to her, share this poignant history and hope she doesn’t lose it. (Elaine Maldonado)3

We live amid transitions, we grow, we develop, we reach milestones, and we keep on going. Our objects move and merge with us along our paths, they enter into our lives at times of change, and at milestones they mark a moment. We celebrate, they celebrate, we acknowledge, they confirm, and onward into new growth we go. A necklace can connect us with a larger identity, a society—in this case cultural—and indicate to us that we belong. A necklace can say it’s time, you’ve arrived, to a new place, to the next stage, with yourself and with us. These are valued objects nurturing important elements of our identity. They provide us with continuity through life’s many transitions (Kroger and Adair 2008);4 they act as signs of the self and are essential for its continued cultivation (Rochberg-Halton 1984). In a liminal period we find ourselves in divisions within societal frameworks and hierarchies, or as with this educator, within a crevice where the street meets the curb.

In liminal periods we can get lost, and our objects can get lost as well. Perhaps, sometimes, it is the objects that lose themselves to someday find us again.



  1. In a 2016 study, Kiersten F. Latham correlated the focused engagement experience of flow, specifically involving deep attention to an object, with her research in object link: an element of numinous object experience in which the presence of an object, as seen in this illustration, actively links a person—and their present—with memories and feelings of the past that are deeply meaningful and symbolic.
  2. In his theory of perrisological resonators and work with mundane objects, Lemonnier describes how objects manipulated into a particular juxtaposition or context converge—or instantaneously activate—a coalescence of concepts, feelings, circumstances, and domains of experience. Their material use triggers emergent, nonverbal statements that speak what words cannot; they can communicate unspeakable truths.
  3. Throughout this book, quotations from personal interviews or correspondence are either attributed directly or anonymized, as appropriate.
  4. Psychologists Jane Kroger and Vivienne Adair describe the phenomena of the symbolic meanings and functions of objects during liminal periods in life as providing identity maintenance and support with revision processes.
  5. Throughout this book, quotations and photographs are either anonymized or used with permission.


Find Museum Objects, Health and Healing: The Relationship between Exhibitions and Wellness, 1st Edition at Routledge Taylor & Francis Group

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