Museum Studies Blog

Posted on March 14th, 2022 in Book Reviews, Student Work by knoxmi | Tags: , ,

Museum Objects, Health and Healing, edited by Brenda Cowan, Ross Laird, and Jason McKeown. New York: Routledge, 2020.



MUSEUM OBJECTS HEALTH AND HEALING book coverHumans interact with and value objects in every aspect of our lives. In many interactions, objects hold meaning and power, impacting our health and wellbeing. Brenda Cowan, Ross Laird, and Jason McKeown explore the connection between objects and mental health throughout Museum Objects, Health and Healing. These authors provide professional museum and therapeutic experience to the analysis of case studies and interviews at four different museums and two different therapeutic experiences. Cowan, Laird, and McKeown dig into why objects hold value, how that value can impact our health, and why this applies to museums throughout the five sections of the book.

Cowan, Laird, and McKeown begin by emphasizing how everyday objects can hold sway over our lives. Using excerpts from several interviews, the authors share the personal stories that the owners connect with their items – often tying them to a person, place, or point in time. These stories reveal concepts explored in depth throughout the rest of the book: the use of objects to process feelings that cannot be spoken; and objects providing a sense of stability or safety in a changing world or through changing identities. This first section establishes the scholarly foundation for many of the ideas of the rest of the book and provides a compelling reason for further exploring the value of objects in the process of health and healing.

Sections two and three use research from outside of a museum setting to explore the use of objects in formal and informal therapeutic practice, including how symbolic objects can be used for inward processing and reflection or external communication. Cowan lays out the theory of psychotherapeutic object dynamics – described as the intersection between an object’s characteristics, its associations, and object actions (seven of which are identified in the book), each working together toward health and healing (p. 80). This theory serves as a foundation of the authors’ overarching evaluation for objects within museums. Throughout this section, Cowan argues that objects only have meaning because people put that meaning onto them via connections, stories, etc. Mere pages later, however, she states that certain materials have inherent numinosity (p. 76), directly opposing her prior argument without addressing the paradoxical nature of the two points. Each author’s example of the value of objects emphasizes the meaning of objects in conjunction with how people use them, to the extent that Laird even appears to place greater emphasis on the value of ritual than the use of the objects themselves. This emphasis on use presents potential challenges to museums seeking to connect with visitors, though it is supported by the valued action of donating an object or story.

Section four applies the research process to museums and evaluates the use and impact of objects at four museums around the world. Through interviews with donors, staff members, and visitors, the authors identified the presence of the seven dynamics (associating, composing, giving/receiving, making, releasing/unburdening, synergizing, and touching) and three consistent themes of connection, identity, and power. In these settings, museums serve as a place to share the stories tied to each object, and to let the objects share what words cannot. Re-emphasizing the psychological role of objects in museum experiences, section five offers suggestions for how to support staff and visitors, and how to facilitate a therapeutic experience without attempting to conduct therapy. Museums are well positioned to support self-reflection and the processing of oftentimes traumatic historical events, yet the intense and sensitive nature of those experiences necessitate care, training, understanding on the part of staff, and the creation of a safe space. These final two sections provide perhaps the most value to museum staff, offering not only practical advice for how to inspire connections and value through museum objects, but also acknowledging the limitations and restrictions that museums have in terms of staffing, training, and exhibit design.

In each section, most of the research provides a clear case for the value of objects in health and healing, but some mistakes throughout pull the reader from the content and leave the argument with a few holes. In the very first section, an interview with one object’s owner involves a highly leading question, “Have you ever thought about the relationship between being 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?” (p. 14). The framing of their own question provides the authors with the conclusion that is later listed in support of their point. It is possible that this is a therapeutic method of leading a conversation, but it biases the outcomes of the interviews and casts doubt on the methodology of the research. Later in the book, an editing note about maintaining the privacy of minors remains in the book (p. 95). These editing slips and perhaps questionable methodologies unfortunately leave the reader with reservations as to the process and production of the research, despite what appears to be an otherwise well-conducted study. 

Each section of Museum Objects, Health and Healing works together to build a comprehensive understanding of the value of objects in psychotherapeutic experiences and how those experiences can and do exist in museum spaces. This research has broad implications on the current and future work of museums as public spaces dedicated to the health of their communities and the world. Objects, “our primal dialogue,” (p. 199) play a significant role in that work, and it is essential that museum professionals are able to utilize those objects and their stories to help our audiences along in their journeys of reflection and growth. 


Elise Daugherty is a first year MA student in the Museum Studies program at IUPUI.