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Supporting museum staff in a trauma infused world

Increasingly, museums are recognising the importance of supporting staff and volunteers with a programme of support to assist in the delivery of emotional or traumatic exhibitions.   

At The Smithsonian National Museum of American History in Washington D.C, supporting the wellbeing of staff took on greater significance during a 20th anniversary initiative for the 9/11 attacks.

In a recent presentation for MuseumNext, Danielle Hodes, Senior Programme Manager and Adam Rozan, Director of Programmes and Audience Development at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History shared how the museum approached the issue of helping staff through a project which naturally triggered an emotional response, memories and trauma.  They were supported by Amy Nitza, Director and Dr Karla Vermeulen, Deputy Director of the Institute for Disaster Mental Health.   

Bringing social issues to light

Museums have a responsibility to cover social and critical issues that challenge the audiences and communities they serve. Caring for teams delivering such projects can be a challenge and, in the case of the National Museum of American History’s 9/11 project, initially an unknown. To better understand the issue, the team turned to other museums and were introduced to the Institute for Disaster Mental Health at the State University of New York – utilising their work on the harmful effects of second-hand trauma. Or in the case of museums, trauma-based knowledge work.

As the contributors in this talk explain, traumatic events can trigger a range of emotional symptoms. But individuals can also experience cognitive, behavioural, and physical symptoms that take a toll on mental health, performance and wellbeing. Beyond those symptoms, trauma can disrupt people’s basic belief systems and destroy a person’s sense of place and social networks. Experiencing a traumatic event will typically leave a different neurological footprint in our brain than other types of stress.

Experiencing that trauma again can become so disturbing that people will often go to great lengths to avoid triggers. Avoidance becomes a hallmark of trauma experiences. The goal with trauma treatment is to take fragmented and isolated bits of memories and turn it into a coherent, narrative story and having a witness, an empathic listener or someone to bear witness as that story is told. This is, in essence, what museums offer on a collective basis.  Telling narratives of traumatic events experienced by individuals, communities, or societies.

Crafting the narrative

For the 9/11 project, both the collection and curating has the potential to take a toll on mental health. The partnership between the Institute for Disaster Mental Health and the National Museum of American History acknowledged and addressed the potential trauma exposure inherent in collecting stories, but also the responsibility of helping to piece together the narrative that others can bear witness to.

Individuals can do a great deal to strengthen their own personal resilience to the effects of trauma but this must be supported at an institutional level to create a broader culture of awareness and openness. It’s important to advocate for supporting staff dealing with trauma-based knowledge work at a higher level.

Often this can start with simple training such as psychological first aid, or self-care and resilience building practices like stress inoculation. Group-level work is important in this field to ensure that people don’t feel they might be the only one experiencing issues. Management should be encouraged to partake in sessions directly so that all staff can feel they are on the same level. This can help create a culture of open conversation designed to reduce staff hesitancy when it comes to feeling judged. Communicating why it is important to commit resource and time to this kind of training is also a way of showing staff what they are expected to gain from it and help inspire a greater level of participation.

More than anything, there is a need for trauma support to be a consistent but evolving programme within institutions to support staff wellbeing in the longer-term.

Interested in learning more about how museums are making a difference to the health and wellbeing of the communities that they serve? The Museums, Health & Wellbeing Summit is a two day virtual event that will bring together leading museum thinkers to share their ideas and experience. The conference will take place 6 – 7 February 2023, and can be watched live or on-demand after the event.

About the author – Tim Deakin

Tim Deakin is a journalist and editorial consultant working with a broad range of online publications.

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