Monday, August 15, 2022

Approaching Collections that Evoke Trauma

This summer has been incredibly busy, with lots of projects on the go. Even when work feels like this, we know how important it is to seek out learning opportunities. We asked our interns to do just that, and to also write some reviews of their favourite webinars. Here is the first one from Madeline. Happy reading!

Hello! I hope everyone’s summer is going well so far.

Between all of the projects we are currently juggling at ANSM, I recently took some time to sit down and watch a webinar hosted by the Foundation for Advancement in Conservation. The webinar is called “Approaching Collections that Evoke Trauma” and it discussed a lot of really relevant information about how to deal with cultural collections and difficult information. As our Unlocking Community Museum Collections consultation sessions are underway, I thought I would share some helpful tips that I learned from the webinar: 

Be Honest: When acquiring a potentially traumatic artifact, it is important to be honest about the abilities and limitations of your museum. Does the object align with your museum’s vision and purpose? Do you have the understanding and the resources necessary to do justice to the object and its story? In some cases, it may not be appropriate or feasible for your museum to tell an object’s story and that is okay. 

Never Work Alone: Collaboration is essential in all areas of museum work, but it is especially important when dealing with trauma-based collections. Before deciding what to do with an object or how to tell a difficult story, it is essential that you seek out partnerships, ask questions, and create open dialogue with related communities. 

Take Your Time: Show objects and stories the respect they deserve by not rushing to complete work. This is easier said than done when exhibit deadlines are fast approaching, but it is important that research and planning be thorough and diligent. Take the time to gather all of the information necessary to tell the story properly and respectfully. 

Empathy for Everyone: When your museum is dealing with objects that may evoke trauma, all staff members need to be properly taken care of. Anyone who may encounter difficult images or information needs to be appropriately prepared and given the space and support necessary to process any emotional response they may experience. Consider storing objects in clearly labelled boxes or including warnings or restrictions within your database to limit the people who have access to sensitive information. 

Exhibit Etiquette: If the object is on display, use signage to prepare visitors for potentially difficult images and information. Consider having interpreters or educators present to provide context and support to visitors. When deciding to display an object, it is also important to consider the physical space. Exhibits should be designed in such a way that people can decide whether they want to enter the space or not. For those that do choose to view the exhibit, providing space for reflection can be helpful. You may also want to consider restricting photography and media within the space to prevent sensitive images from being shared. 

Encourage Safe Engagement: Museum visitors should be encouraged to participate and interact with exhibits in a way that is safe and productive. If people feel welcome to share their stories and experiences, they will feel more connected to the exhibit and the museum. Allowing people the opportunity to share can help to gather a wider narrative and provide a healing space. On the other hand, when allowing for open discussion and sharing, you must also be prepared to receive ignorant or hateful comments. It is helpful to have a plan in place for how to deal with negative interactions in a respectful and thoughtful manner. 

Keep an Open Mind: The most important thing to remember when dealing with traumatic or sensitive objects in your collection is to be open to new ideas. Actively listening to community feedback, subject matter experts, and research findings should inform how an object or story is handled. Be open to stepping outside your comfort zone, asking for help, and doing things differently than they have been done in the past. 

Overall, difficult stories are not something to be afraid of, but they do need to be handled with care. Done thoughtfully, engagements with objects related to trauma can contribute to more open discussions, create larger social awareness, and lead to necessary change. 

If you are interested in learning more, I would encourage you to watch the webinar yourself here