Brenda Cowan FDGA 2016


The intent of this research is to define and examine the psychological underpinnings of the intrinsic relationships between people and objects, and from that understanding develop impactful strategies for generating museum exhibition experiences that explicitly promote health and opportunities for healing. Our premise is that exhibition experiences are potent and unique in their ability to foster wellbeing and contribute to psychological healing, and that by identifying and articulating the inherent role that objects play in our everyday health and wellbeing we can design experiences with objects that explicitly foster healthful outcomes. This document introduces the reader to the theory of Pyschotherapeutic Object Dynamics (Cowan 2015), provides a summary of the first phase of research that generated the theory, and presents in full the second and most recent phase of research, a case study involving donors to the September 11th Museum and Memorial. Implications for further applied research conclude the document.

Background and Body of Scholarship

This research is founded upon the irrefutable knowledge that objects are both deeply meaningful and absolutely necessary in the lives of people. The journey of the study begins with the question why. It can be said that people have an innate and primal dialogue with objects, an inextricable meaning-based relationship that functions in the manner of a continuous and often subconscious or unintentional nonverbal dialogue. Objects can extrinsically communicate our own concepts and thoughts with intent; conversely, they can internally translate complex concepts, thoughts and actions; they can prompt memory, connect us with others, access subconscious experiences and emotions; they can foster transpersonal experiences that include heightened creativity, spirituality, and self-awareness, and they can prompt us to action. This study seeks to understand and articulate the reasons people attribute these characteristics to objects and have such profound object experiences. Moreover, the study delves into the underlying psychological underpinnings of human-object relationships and explores the premise that at its core, the human-object relationship is necessary to psychological health and wellbeing.

This study was prompted by foundational work in the museum and material culture professions particular to the phenomenological and evocative nature of objects, the influence of everyday objects in the lives of people, the nature of object-based meaning making and the defined characteristics that shape those meanings. The body of literature as shaped by the fundamental works of John Dewey, Lois Silverman and George Hein provides us with a framework for studying object relationships within the museum environment and examining the role of the exhibition to foster meaning making where objects hold the power to illustrate, explain, captivate and enable visitors to relate to content in a personally significant manner. The work of Mihalyi Csikszentmihalyi has provided an essential guiding definition of overarching object characteristics, including power (vitality and energy), self (personal identity and continuum), and society (relationship and hierarchy). Sherry Turkle’s work with objects leads us to the evocative nature of objects as silent partners and life companions, repositories for memory and history, and as provocateurs of thought and action. Most recently, Latham and Wood present to us the Object Knowledge Framework, a new way of defining multidimensional people-object relationships in museum environments. Their study includes looking at interrelationships between work in phenomenology and the ways in which humans on an instinctual level seek to make meaning out of objects, as explored in museum-based research. In their Object Knowledge Framework, Wood and Latham assert four key characteristics of object experiences, including Unity of the Moment; Object Link (objects as repositories); Being Transported (the transpersonal); and Connections Bigger than Self (numinous qualities including reverence, spirituality and connections with higher things).

Additional foundations for our research are found in psychoanalytical and sociological theory in which objects signify human factors such as self and identity, the relationship of individuals to family/society (Rochberg-Halton, 1984, Fowler, 2010), and personal power/primal self (Nguyen, 2011). Of particular interest is the work of Pierre Lemmonier who describes objects as being multidimensional devices of non-verbal communication that perform social intercourse, or communication that is a part of everyday life yet not always consciously recognized. The object converges, or instantaneously activates a coalescence of feelings, circumstances, and domains of experience in the context of its making or use. Lemmonier refers to objects in this respect as “perissological resonators” whose material use triggers emergent, nonverbal statements speak what words cannot and can communicate “unspeakable truths.”

Additionally, two researchers of note provide information on the relationship between therapy and museums, each suggesting that exhibition visitation has a direct healing impact on audiences. The insightful work of Andree Salom (at the Center for Transpersonal Studies in Colombia) infuses his research with many of the themes explored by Csikzentmihalyi, Hein, Silverman, Latham and Wood. Most particularly, Salom defines the numinous characteristics in certain objects, and the emotive quality of exhibition spaces, as kindlers of transpersonal experience in exhibitions, opening up visitors to flow states, spiritual inspiration, self reflection, deepened awareness and mindfulness. In similar fashion, “Muse Therapy” is the term used by Manoru Adachi at the Nagoya University Museum, where he has studied the healing impacts of arts-based museum programming – in conjunction with object-based exhibitions – on primary and secondary school-aged students. He focuses on mental stress in students, and how multiple visitations and multi-sensory interaction with museum specimens indicated “recovery from the problems” (of mental stress).

Altogether, this groundwork has encouraged the first two phases of research leading to the definition of Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics, and will continue to underscore the work towards practical museum-based applications.

Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics

Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics refers to the inherent relationships between an object and its characteristics, the dynamic actions between the object and a person, and the resultant psychological impact of those actions. The theory suggests that objects are, on a fundamental level, essential to psychological health, wellbeing and healing. The theory also explains why objects have undeniable and common evocative and phenomenological characteristics inherent to meaning making. Furthermore, the theory illustrates broader sociological concepts of power, self and society.

Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics is defined by five dynamics: Releasing/Unburdening, Giving/Receiving, Composing, Associating, and Making that coalesce around fundamental scholarship in the disciplines of material culture, museum studies, psychology and psychotherapy. In application, the theory suggests that object-based exhibitions can be explicitly designed to enhance the psychological healing capacities of museum visitors and to attend to the everyday psychological health and wellbeing of museum audiences and participants. The individual dynamics are defined as follows:


The action of releasing an object from a state of highly associative ownership into a place or state with the intent of entirely and permanently removing it from its former association (meaning) and state of ownership.


The action of generating an original or newly-formed object as a means of experiencing and implementing the fundamental creative process, and in doing so undergoing progressive stages of psychological growth and healing.


The action of maintaining – and keeping within close physical proximity to – an object in an effort to perpetuate the knowledge/memory of the associations attributed to the object, including experiences, emotional states, places
and people.


The action of donating or offering to another person or people an object with the intention of its being accepted, and the resultant act of its being received with its attributed meanings being mutually understood and held intact.


The action of bringing together and juxtaposing objects with the intent of forming and expressing concepts or ideas so as to coalesce, examine and convey meanings that cannot otherwise be fully or entirely explained or expressed.

Phase l Field Research Summary
Conducted June – July 2015, Cowan

This first phase of research examined potential areas of confluence between object interpretation and meaning-making in museum practice with objects as used in therapeutic practice. Grounded in the body of scholarship defining the phenomenological and evocative nature of objects, their influence in the lives of people, and the characteristics that shape those meanings, the purpose of the research was to explore the reason for those meanings, their fundamental psychological underpinnings. Converging the disciplines of museum and object studies, psychology and psychotherapy, the study followed the premise that people have an innate and necessary relationship with objects I refer to as primal dialogue, that is essential to personal meaning making and to an individual’s psychological health. To explore this premise, object-based therapy was determined to be an appropriate and unique arena for study, leading to primary research in the use of objects at an adolescent therapeutic wilderness program (Trails Carolina), and with a psychologist and psychotherapist expert in the making of objects as a means of self-discovery and actualization (Professor Ross Laird). The therapeutic work with objects at each venue correlates with research in the roles and interpretation of objects in museum exhibitions, as well as objects in relation to sociocultural identification, self-identification, power, and humanity. The study’s focus was placed on self-made objects and those found in nature, as opposed to branded and commercially mass-produced objects. At Trails Carolina (Lake Toxaway, North Carolina), interviews were conducted with the facility’s Clinical Director, Director of Students and Field Manager. Additionally, two days were spent in the field with a group of adolescents engaged in the therapeutic process where observations were made of object-based individual and group therapy sessions, as well as wilderness lifestyle practices. At the Museum of Cultural Anthropology (Vancouver, British Columbia) Professor Laird was interviewed about his approach to creativity-based therapeutic practice and his expertise regarding the psychological impact of objects. The primary research findings resulted in a new theory of Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics that illustrates how objects are inherent to an individual’s wellbeing and psychological health. The theory’s five primary dynamics include Making, Associating, Releasing/Unburdening, Composing, and Giving/Receiving.

Phase ll Case Study Executive Summary
Conducted June 2016, Cowan, Laird, McKeown


The intent of the second phase of research was to seek evidence for, and to further define, the theory of Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics by way of concrete examples involving a museum environment. In coordination with the National September 11 Memorial & Museum (New York, NY), a case study was conducted with object donors to the institution’s collections. Performing the case study were Brenda Cowan, Associate Professor of Exhibition Design, School of Graduate Studies at SUNY/FIT, Professor Ross Laird, PhD, Interdisciplinary Creative Process, MA, Counseling Psychology, and Jason McKeown MS, LMFT, CPE, DCC, Director of Clinical and Family Services Trails Carolina.

The National September 11 Memorial & Museum was selected because of its unique collections-donor relationship that suggested explicit demonstrations of Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics. Eleven in-depth interviews were conducted between June 8th and June 11th, 2016. On behalf of the research team the institution sent out a voluntary call via mail to a prospective interview population. For the purposes of this study, the subjects were identified solely according to their relationship to the event and to the object(s) they donated. Participants included five widows, three survivors (including one who also lost a husband and one who lost a cousin), one mother who lost a son, one first responder, and one on-location journalist. The case study explored the psychotherapeutic benefits of the participation of the object donors in the institution’s acquisitions, the personal identification of the donors with their donated objects, and the psychological experience of the donors through the process of donation.

The interviewing methodology utilized a heuristic approach focused on generating qualitative data. This narrative-based approach invited participants to explore and express the idea of donation, the event itself, the donated object(s) and their meanings, and what if any, healing/meaning was found in the object experience for the interviewees. The researchers sought to identify patterns of intent, experience, and emotional outcomes in both the short and long-term. Some of the object donations were made immediately following the event, whereas others were made sometime in the ensuing years. The most recent donation was four months ago. In some cases, subjects were approached by The National September 11 Memorial & Museum and asked to consider donating, while others made the initial contact. In every case, subjects gave objects willingly and some are considering donating additional items at some point in the future.

Overarching Findings

The data collected reinforced commonly held understandings of the meaningfulness of objects in everyday life, the potency of objects within museum environments, the value of participation, co-creation and open-content generation in exhibitions, and identified particular modes of design that are psychologically and interpretively impactful. Multiple subjects referred to their objects as “witnesses” to the event and to their own experience, and as the means by which the story of the event and their roles within it will be told. Most subjects referred to the need for the objects to keep the memory of their loved one alive, and/or the need for the objects to provide an accurate accounting of the details of what occurred. One subject clearly explained that the objects she donated carry a great deal of weight (responsibility), which can be reasonably said for all of the subjects interviewed. In many instances, subjects referred to The National September 11 Memorial & Museum as a place where their objects will be kept safe. The objects will be protected, and in that regard the institution is an ally. One subject specifically referred to The National September 11 Memorial & Museum as a “therapeutic ally.” In the profession’s current discourse regarding the role of participation and co-creation in museum content generation as well as the responsibility of museums to their constituencies, the importance of that message cannot be overstated.

Our review of the data collected from the eleven interviews show multiple examples of four of the five object dynamics in play: Associating, Releasing/Unburdening, Composing, and Giving/Receiving. Anecdotes from the subjects regarding the meanings of the objects, their relationships with the objects, their decisions and actions of donating, and the impacts of the experiences provide supportive illustrations of those four dynamics as well as further information regarding the healthful and healing impacts of the donation process. Although the researchers had not anticipated Composing or Making appearing within the data, evidence of Composing emerged in substantive and qualifying ways, and Making was indicated (although to a much lesser degree). The role of place emerged in a few instances, and in the next steps of the study we will consider place for potential inclusion as an object dynamic.

Throughout the interviews, subjects provided information that firmly represented established object characteristics and experiences including: objects as repositories of experience, bearing witness, perrisological resonators, life companions, calls to action, self identity, life continuum, and primal power. Specific illustrations of the object dynamics also emerged throughout all eleven interviews in various ways. Those examples are identified in the Collected Data section of this report, organized by interview question with substantiating quotes from the subjects.