Search Museum Next

Film: Museums Working With Veterans

Sarah Jesse, Associate Vice President of Education at Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Barbara Kreski, Director, Horticultural Therapy Services, Chicago Botanic Garden spoke about their work with Veterans at MuseumNext New York on 15th November 2016.

The military veteran experience is far from universal. There is not one archetype of who enlists, nor only one kind of military experience or re-entry into civilian life. Given this, how do museums responsibly develop offerings for veterans in a way that recognizes this diversity? Discover two approaches to working with veterans that take into account the diversity within the veteran community and reflect the particular expertise and mission of each institution.

The Los Angeles County Museum of Art’s program teaches veterans how to make films that tell their “coming home” story, illustrating a multidimensional view of the veteran experience and building empathy for veterans among civilians.

The Chicago Botanic Garden offers a horticultural therapy program that leverages the soothing power of nature to complement traditional medical and psychiatric treatment for veterans coping with stress–related disorders, such as PTSD.

Though the case studies focus on serving veterans, the principles behind developing these initiatives apply to any targeted audience. As we increasingly focus on serving specific communities with customized offerings, museums that go beyond the generalities of any given demographic are better positioned to design nuanced approaches that meet the audience’s needs.

Sarah Jesse: By a show of hands, how many of you personally know of someone currently enlisted in the United States Military? Excellent. Okay. What images come to mind when you think of the military? Just think about that for a moment, to yourself. And, now if I asked you to describe a veteran, what might you say? Just think about that for a moment as well. Now, for most of you I’m guessing answering some of these questions may be difficult to answer, and it’s not just because this is an international audience. Less than 1% of the United States population is active in the military and because it’s such a small community in the United States, military personnel and veterans can often feel misunderstood or misrepresented and often perceived as one homogenous group of people. Given the disproportionate amount of airtime that more sensationalist stories about veterans in the United States receive, we may be surprised to learn that in actuality only 10% of today’s armed forces experience actual combat.

Veterans are no more likely than civilians to commit suicide. At the highest end of the estimate, the majority of veterans do not have PTSD. As of September 2015, the unemployment rate for all veterans was 4.3% in the nation and veterans make up less than 10% of the homeless population. Now, of course, these issues are critical and they’re critical to the veteran community, but we can’t ignore that while there are veterans who need basic services, such as mental health services, housing and employment, other, in fact the majority, have needs that fall outside of these categories. When it comes to the nitty gritty work of actually designing a programme to serve the veteran community, it quickly becomes clear that the label of veteran isn’t a specific enough characterisation in order to determine the right approach. A programme that serves homeless veterans, for example, would have very different requirements and look really different from a programme that serves veterans who are living more stable lives, for example.

So, Barb Kreski from the Chicago Botanic Garden and I will talk about two very different programmes that recognise the spectrum of needs within the veteran community and the programmes are designed to serve a specific sub-set within the veteran community, as opposed to a one size fits all approach. So, I’ll first talk about our programme at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, called Veterans Make Movies, which is a series of eight week workshops where veterans learn how to tell their story in a film and then we screen those films for audiences and also via an online channel. To back up a bit though, in order to arrive at what kind of approach we wanted to take with this, we really had to go beyond thinking of the audience for this programme as simply the generic veteran or that it would serve all veterans. There are 1.8 million veterans living in LA County, the highest concentration in the nation, and it’s an incredibly diverse group of people.

Many of the local veterans that we talked to were living relatively stable lives. When we asked them about their needs, many of them didn’t cite the things we might think of. They didn’t cite where they would find their next meal or where they would sleep that night, for example. In fact, many of them expressed frustration over the civilian military divide and they felt unfairly stereotyped or misrepresented. So, we created Veterans Make Movies as a platform in order to give veterans a chance to share their perspectives and experiences, a counter-narrative if you will, not a clichéd version of the veteran experience that is often portrayed in the media. So, through analysing film clips and video artwork from artists in our collection, the veteran participants look at how other filmmakers and artists have used the medium of the moving image as, essentially, a communication tool to send a message to tell a story to express an emotion.

They then become, on the other side of that equation, the filmmakers and through reflective writing exercises and storyboarding, they learn how to hone their point of view and ultimately create by writing, shooting and editing their own short film. The process is really cathartic for the veteran participants and it’s also the end that they create is also, I think, for the audiences as well, because the audience is getting this sense of the multiple voices that make up the veteran community. So, I mentioned the word cathartic purposefully. As we were conceiving of this programme, we had to think about it in a way that … we had to make the distinction that this was not formal art therapy. Mostly because this isn’t really our bailiwick as a museum. Of course, we could have partnered with somebody to provide that expertise, but most of all, really, we weren’t targeting veterans that needed therapy and so that decision is reflected in the design of the programme.

So, for example, first and foremost we designed the programme as a way to build skills for veterans, technical filmmaking skills, storytelling skills, and we didn’t recruit participants from social service agencies and we don’t have a licenced therapist in the room with us, because that would have been off-putting to the specific sub-set of the veteran population that we were serving with this programme. Also, the dynamic in the class is not one-sided as is in tradition therapy type programmes, in that us as the museum were in this position of providing the help and the veterans are in the position of receiving the help. Instead, it was really more about mutual two-way exchange. We were very clear at the beginning of the class in saying, “We have a goal too. Our goal with this is to, by the end of this initiative, have a cache of real, honest, authentic, specific individual stories about the veteran experience that go beyond he cliché and we’re essentially enlisting your help in accomplishing that. So, it really become more two-way.

Now, that being said, while we recognise that this programme isn’t formal art therapy, it is still therapeutic in a sense, because the creative process is inherently therapeutic, especially when you have stories like the veterans have to tell. Acknowledging this required the creation of a safe space and we were able to foster that in a couple of different ways. One, we hired an art therapist to act as a consultant to us in the pre-planning phases and on an ad hoc basis when things came up in the class that we needed her advice with, for instance. We also asked her to train our teaching staff in terms of gaining greater awareness and sensitivity and to be able to anticipate some of the sticking points that might emerge in the creative process. Also, we made the decision that we wanted to have almost all veterans in the room and other than one, maybe two, staff members, if I happened to be there that day, everybody in the room is a veteran and in addition to that we also paid attention to the diversity, not only of the teaching staff, but also of the participant make-up within each class. Diversity in terms of generation, race and ethnicity, the branch of the military and also of gender.

Finally, we created this as a collaboration with the Los Angeles Public Library and their veteran resource centres. Now, these centres are located in specific library branches to provide these basic needs to veterans. So, while those social services were not at all a part of our programme, it lowered the barrier and it gave the veterans participating in the programme really easy access to those services, if needed. So, before I turn it over to Barb to talk more about the Chicago Botanic Garden, I wanted to show you an example of a short film that was actually made in the class and I think it demonstrates the cathartic element of the programme. It was made by a US Army veteran named Melanie Brown and what’s fascinating is that this film almost didn’t get made. She was apprehensive about telling her story. She knew she had wanted to talk about the abuse that she experienced in the military, but she wanted to be portrayed like we view all war veterans, which is as survivors, as heroes, as having been through something and she thought making this film might makes her out to appear as a victim.

So, over time we encouraged her to get over that hump and we also encouraged her to identify one visual image that would encapsulate all of her experiences of abuse while she was in the military and she kept coming back to this image in her head of cleaning the floor with a toothbrush, which was a task she had to do many times. So, that became the way we got her to follow through with this, using this as a starting point and it distilled all of her experiences of abuse in the military, specifically to her time in basic training. So, when we arrived at this point the class was almost halfway done and she hadn’t written or shot anything, but now she knew what she had wanted to do and how to do it. So, I’d like to play this film for you now and then we will turn it over to Barb. It’s just under four minutes.

[Video 00:10:42 – 00:14:26]

Sarah : Take it away Barb.

Barbara Kreski: Well, that’s pretty sobering and pretty tough to follow. I’ll try. So, I have the luckiest job in the world. It’s the reward at the end of a long career. I’ve been an occupational therapist in rehabilitation medicine and education for 30 plus years. The past six years, I’ve been the Director of Horticultural Therapy Services at Chicago Botanic Garden. So, therapeutic horticulture leverages the research fact now, that spending time in nature is a path to stress reduction and the ability to concentrate and focus more easily. We work with people with all sorts of issues. If you’re implying therapeutic horticulture, you’re implying that there’s some distress, some need, and that is indeed people who we serve. However, we, again, are not a healthcare facility, we’re a botanic garden or a museum. So, we really focus on knowing exactly what we do best. This is the Garden’s mission statement and fortunately my little department, we’re three and half people, we fit in the Garden’s mission statement perfectly. We cultivate the power of plants to sustain and enrich life.

So, research, as I said, is now bringing more and more evidence to the fact that spending time in nature reduces stress. So, in my department we think about, “Well, who needs this?” The obvious and very quick conclusion would be, the veteran population. Now, we have worked with the veteran population since before the Garden existed. When the Garden was still in its planning phases, people went out and worked with hospitalised veterans. In the 1950s they were allowed to work in the food gardens on the grounds of the VA hospitals, under the idea that time in sunshine, fresh air and some good hard work was helpful. Well, you can’t do that anymore, because it’s considered exploitation of patients. So, now we have departments like mine. How can a museum help with a need that they’ve identified like this when, as I said, we’re not a healthcare facility? We found the answer in working with a partner. We were very lucky in that we partnered up with the largest mental health provider in the Chicago area, which is called Thresholds.

Thresholds was developing a segmented category of people they would help, which was the veteran population, and they remembered that when I first got on the job and was giddy with power and was ready to give it all away, I said, “Well, you just come up here anytime. We’ll do a staff development day. I’ve got the keys to the Garden and I’ll share them with you.” They remembered that and three years later they came to me and we did do a staff development day and very organically through that experience, where their clinicians and their leaders came up, at the end of the day they said, “This has been fantastic and our vets need it too. Is there any way?” So, that’s how the partnership developed. We do what we know best. We found ways throughout the garden to very intentionally and with great variety, engage people with nature and the people came. The clinicians drove all over Chicago, picked up their clients and drove them to the Garden. Our Garden is on the outskirts of the county, Cook County, that houses Chicago. So, we’re not easy to get to.

So, the clinicians came, along with their patients, and their expertise is the therapeutic process they were engaged in. Our expertise was to provide these experiences that would complement, that would provide a sense of relaxation, provide some education, provide an ability to socialise and provide an ability for the clinicians and the clients to relate in a different way. This one picture is, we took them to the Japanese garden, where they were allowed to rake the dry garden into patterns and they were also allowed to do something that nobody but the Japanese Ambassador is ever allowed to do, which is to go into our reconstructed [Shoan] house and that’s a house where a Samurai Warrior would go to look out over the water and contemplate battles past and battles yet to come. Our veterans were allowed to sit in there, even though the general public … as I say, nobody’s been allowed to sit in there for many years, because it’s a very fragile building.

The second picture is of when we went to the fruit and vegetable garden and the harvested and then created a meal from what they harvested. So, that programme, we call it a retreat programme, is one that we developed, very nicely, with a partnership, because there was an identified need and that’s what we do most commonly. That need was people with stress related disorders, but we have about six programmes in my department now that serve veterans and not all, obviously, as Sarah said, are experiencing stress related disorders. So, another programme that we started this past summer and we’ll continue next summer is under a grant from IMLS and it’s a transitional jobs programme, finding people at that slice of time when they’re separated from the military and they’re ready for what comes next, but they haven’t quite figured out what comes next is going to be. A lot of people in this timeframe use up their education credits trying to figure out what their major’s going to be or what their job’s going to be.

So, we allow them a paid 14-week internship all over the garden and then time with a curriculum that examines interests and updates job seeking skills, so that the people, at the end of that 14 weeks, are ready to go for their next step. We also have a programme recognising that families of newly returned veterans or active duty military have needs too. It’s often said that when a soldier deploys, the family deploys. The need that these people seemed to have, that we could address, was a time to enjoy something together. Coming to the Garden is expensive on the budget of a military personnel’s salary. So, we were able, under a grant, to waive all fees, to provide a meal, to provide an experience at some of our famous exhibitions, like the orchid show or the wonderland garden train exhibit. So, as I say, now we’ve got six programmes going with veterans and we have programmes going with other disability groups as well. So, this isn’t all we do. How did we start? Well, the Garden started way back in the 50s. I’ve been there for six years and how we started under my watch was with one veteran.

So, I would say this was an easy thing to do and I will tell you very specifically, in the United States there’s an organisation called the Mission Continues. They handle the veteran, they handle the goals of the veteran, they handle paying the veteran and that veteran can work in your museum. We grew from there, from one veteran. Sarah and I agreed that in presenting these two different case studies, we really hoped that it would prompt thoughts within the audience of what is unique about your museum and what can you do? What do you do best and how can somebody, who’s got some area of distress or need in their life, how can you help them take advantage of what you do best? I made a short list of what I’ve heard people talk about museums offering to people; transforming lives, recreation, lifelong learning, employment, creating communities, social justice, human rights and I would end, safety and shelter. That’s only a partial list. In there there’s lots of people in your community who might not find you otherwise, but to whom you have something very, very important to offer. Reach out to either of us or make it yourself. You’ll be able to do it. Thank you.


I think we have time for questions. So, Sarah and I are both here if there are any.

Male Voice: Hi. Thank you very much. You talked about a nuanced approach and not only serving cliché veterans, but I was wondering if you also had that sort of population using your programmes?

Barbara: I certainly do. That’s in treatment for PTSD. That’s the vets we have who are ready for work, often don’t identify themselves as vets, because that’s a very common stereotype and they don’t want to be identified with it, but for vets who do have that, yes, we actually serve them explicitly.

Sarah: At LACMA, we just have the one programme and as we were thinking of the one programme, we decided on this specific sub-set. Thank you.

Barbara: All right?

Sarah: Thank you.

Sarah Jesse, Associate Vice President of Education at Los Angeles County Museum of Art and Barbara Kreski, Director, Horticultural Therapy Services, Chicago Botanic Garden spoke about their work with Veterans at MuseumNext New York on 15th November 2016.

If you’re interested in learning about how museums are working with veterans, you might find this article of interest.

Subscribe to the latest museum thinking

Fresh ideas from museums around the globe in your inbox each week