The permanent and official blog of the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies PhD student conferences and special events.

27 March 2012

An Eighth Sounding: The Emerging Museums and Health Practice

When Unhoused Minds Meet Housed Objects

Museums, Myna Trustram argues, can provide objects which we can use to surface and work through our inner worlds, what we have lost and what we desire. Museums are good for us, she argues, not because they offer an understanding of the world, but of the self. This does not require the experience of static arcadia, but a recognition of loss and unrealizable desire. I would argue that this suggests that museums do not themselves have to provide perfect utopian experiences; in producing negative experiences they can also produce a change in the self which is for the good.

To show us this power, Myna uses three objects. One is a miniature egg timer or hourglass from the Mary Grieg Collection at Manchester City Galleries. This was part of a project in which the collection took objects to young patients in an oncology ward. These patients were asked to select an object which had particular relevance, and resonance, for them. In this case, the young girl used it, movingly, to question the nature of time, and of her own mortality.

A Doulton and Company acid jug, belonging to Manchester Art Gallery, was used by a collaboration with a Sure Start Centre, who used the gallery as inspiration for their own art work. Again, the participants were asked to choose an object which meant something to them. The woman who chose it felt that she, like the jug, feels filled up and then poured out.

A group of young people involved with the mental health services in the Manchester area came to visit the Pre-Raphaelite gallery once a month. The object they chose was, unsurprisingly, Ophelia, by Arthur Hughes, with all its connotations of sadness and despair.

Objects are not just physical things, but the meanings we build around them. Myna interprets these objects through psychoanalysis and object relations theory, suggesting that these objects are represented symbolically in the inner world, and are used in the outer world to express their desires.

How, then, can this be resolved in the museum?

In psychoanalysis, loss - in particular the loss of the Mother - is a constant theme and concern. The child, it is thought, creates a symbolic object such as a comfort blanket to represent an absent mother. A similar argument, Myna says, can be made for the objects she outlined above. For they, too, are also about loss. We talk about museum objects as things for learning, she argues, but not as items of self-articulation. Perhaps we can resolve our sense of loss by the knowledge that the objects will remain, will be protected in the museum, and will be shared with others.

Myna argues that museums need to recognise the possibilities which these objects has for mental health. Positioned as freely associative things, rather than didactic elements, they become far more open for the visitors engagement - but this is not, she argues, so present in the current museum discourse. Utopia offers perfection - protection against the fact that life is not as we desire it to be. That life involves loss. I might again suggest that utopia, then, becomes a goal that perhaps we do not actually want to realize.

The museum staff become, thus, more aligned to the role of carer - a role which does not require knowing, but a negative capability. They need to not know: as Elee and Will noted at the start of this session. Enhancing the symbolic capacity of objects is one of the most important tasks of museums today. We can, it seems, create utopias around, and from, and with, things. For me, it is not that the object is a symbol, but that it is an evocative entity when bought into engagement with a particular individual, who may have a particular cultural background. In material culture studies the discourse around objects and their identity has long suggested a similar thing - in fact, it has suggested that our engagement with objects is more than symbolic, more than physical, more than personal, made up of more than outside or inner meanings - but is, in fact, a dialogue between these all.

But how, I wonder, do they actually practically achieve this? Where have we, at the end of this session, which has focused so much on the invisible, left ourselves in relation to the practical articulation of those ideals?

Where, indeed, have we left the museum? Has it been left with any authority at all - has it been left, indeed, with any notion of it's own self and identity? Perhaps, in the next session, 'Designing Utopias', we'll find out...


  1. I think a lot about museums and mortality, actually, and one of the conclusions that I have come to (perhaps it is also relevant for David Francis's talk, which discussed why we are uncomfortable with retrophilia), is that humans don't like to see themselves as historical subjects, nor be reminded of mortality. In my thesis, I make a Heideggerian argument about this, but it's nice to see that other scholars are coming to more practice-based conclusions along similar lines.

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