As the Institute for Disaster Mental Health has expanded our training outreach beyond traditional disaster responders to include educators, librarians, and others whose work brings them into contact with trauma’s impact, one of our most exciting partnerships has been with the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History (NMAH).
We began working with NMAH in 2021 in advance of the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks, when the museum assembled a cross-departmental team to plan for the milestone. Knowing that commemorating this event and the surrounding stories, objects, and history could be distressing or even traumatic to engage with, museum staff reached out to IDMH for ways to better support the project team while preparing for the anniversary activities. IDMH Executive Director Amy Nitza and Deputy Director Karla Vermeulen delivered a series of trainings for the 9/11 project team members, educating them about the nature of stress and trauma, the impact of working with potentially traumatic objects, and strategies for managing their reactions to their exposure to this material.
In the words of Adam Rozan, NMAH Director of Programs and Audience Development, “we know, as museum professionals, that objects and narratives have power. What our colleagues were sharing was that they can have negative consequences too.” Together, staff from the Smithsonian and IDMH began to explore museum work through a mental health lens in order to address the risks involved in working with content associated with traumatic events. We refer to the secondary trauma incurred through museum work as “Trauma-Based Knowledge Work,” which includes any activity that puts the individual at risk for adverse psychological reactions due to their duties and activities within their museum or similar educational setting.
After those initial trainings were well received by the 9/11 project team, the partnership between IDMH and NMAH has expanded, with Dr. Nitza and Dr. Vermeulen providing training to teams across the museum including those who work behind the scenes to collect and curate historical artifacts, as well as personnel who interact with the public around challenging materials and exhibitions. As we’ve learned through these collaborations, knowledge work and museum work are not inherently traumatic; however, working in museums and libraries can expose staff to challenging content and work-based activities that are traumatic in nature. Exposure for individuals and teams can be acute, related to a specific encounter, or chronic and cumulative due to repeated exposure to challenging content throughout one's career.
Our goal is to provide the museum staff with positive coping strategies in order to prevent negative effects from interacting with potentially traumatic materials. We believe this support provides benefits at two levels: It will help individual staff members avoid harmful reactions like secondary trauma and burnout, and it will enable them to more fully engage with the materials and stories they encounter, leading to more effective outcomes like the powerful programming and exhibitions that are the ultimate goal of museum work.
What's next? In the coming months, the team from NMAH and IDMH will release new tools and additional information on Trauma-based Knowledge Work to support museums and museum professionals. We'd also like to hear from you, to learn from other museums and museum professionals what tools and resources they have put into place to support their teams. You can email us at email@example.com.