The Role of Museums in Holistic Healing

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and Holistic Healing

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) is a mental health condition that is triggered by either experiencing or witnessing a terrifying event. Many people who survive traumatic events have difficulty adjusting and coping, but over time and with treatment get better. PTSD, however, is characterized by symptoms—flashbacks, nightmares, severe anxiety, and uncontrollable thoughts about the event—that persist, get progressively worse, and interfere with a person’s ability to function daily causing problems in social or work situations and in personal relationships.

Trauma, psychological or physical, is processed by the brain along the same neurological pathways. In other words, when we suffer severe psychological trauma we feel it the same way we would if we had been injured physically. Those that suffer from PTSD literally experience the same psychological and physical feelings they did during their experience.

The most common forms of treatment for PTSD are cognitive-behavioral therapy and medicines known as SSRIs (Selective Serotonin Re-uptake Inhibitors).[1] However, studies find that cognitive-behavioral therapy is only effective in half of patients suffering from PTSD and there are a whole host of adverse side effects associated with SSRIs. [2]

Neuro-imaging of the brain during traumatic recall shows that the left frontal lobe of brain shuts down. This is the center for speech, which explains why so many individuals have difficulty verbalizing their traumatic experiences in therapy sessions. Interestingly, while the left frontal lobe shuts down, the brain’s right hemisphere lights up. This is the area of the brain that deals with spatial reasoning, or in other words the part of the brain we access when we are working with our hands to create something.[3] These findings have raised an interest in holistic healing, which considers the whole person—body, mind, spirit, and emotions—and its application to PTSD.

What Role Do Museums Play As Places of Healing

Museums are traditionally contemplative spaces. Special exhibitions that highlight military efforts, success, and culture provide a chance for veterans to reflect and process their experiences. Private viewing hours for military members and their families during an exhibition encourage healing by

connecting them to other people with similar experiences and familiarity of certain places. This kind of community building reminds those who are suffering with wounds seen and unseen that they are not alone.


Fig.1 Courage and Strength: Portraits of Those Who Have Served.  Honolulu Museum of Art


Fig.2 Tim Hetherington.  Courage and Strength: Portraits of Those Who Have Served.  Honolulu Museum of Art

In addition to this traditional “see art” component of museums, there is an increasing interest in providing programming to address the unique needs of the community. For example, Honolulu has a high population of military members and the Honolulu Museum of Art frequently has exhibitions and programs that include the needs of the local demographic. “Make art” sessions for veterans in treatment for PTSD help focus intrusive thoughts and slow their minds down to a relaxed state. Studies are also finding that the process of creating increases a person’s sense of control over the memories of a traumatic event. Patients with PTSD use art as a filter between themselves and their memories which allows them to safely resolve the emotional issues surrounding those experiences. Art, as a vehicle for communication, allows for an intimate sharing of difficult –even brutal—experiences that rebuilds bridges back to peers and family.

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Fig. 3-6 Art Therapy for Veterans

Museums have a unique opportunity to serve an audience in need of holistic healing. The American Alliance of Museums perhaps said it best, “Museums have demonstrated their public value as educational providers, community anchors, and stewards of our national heritage. As society has changed, so has the work of our museums.” [4] Offering a safe space to process experiences through observation and creation is the new work of the museum.


[1] Cognitive behavioral therapy is a short-term, goal-oriented psychotherapy treatment that takes a hands-on, practical approach to problem-solving. Its goal is to change patterns of thinking or behavior that are behind people’s difficulties, and so change the way they feel.

[2] Cognitive behavioral therapy for the treatment of post-traumatic stress disorder: a review.

Antidepressants and SSRIs

[3] The Magic of the Arts.

[4] Museums on Call: How Museums are Addressing Health Issues.

5 thoughts on “The Role of Museums in Holistic Healing

  1. rachelquimby

    What a great topic! I’m struck by the power of “creation”– not just in the sense of healing through a creative piece that externalizes pain, but in the way that work (pardon the Puritanical sentiment) lends meaning to life. I know there are many programs to try to get vets back to work, and while there’s no substitute for being paid in formal American lucre, museums could start programs where vets volunteer. They could participate in program planning, create exhibitions, and organize events, some of which might have to do with their service, but not all. I’m thinking of it as a mini-WPA-type initiative to give a sense of purpose and accomplishment to people who often ironically and sadly feel purposeless upon their return. Plus, it could give the non-military public a perspective many of us rarely encounter.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Patty Arteaga

    I have to admit that I wrote, deleted, rewrote, then deleted again my comments about this subject only because I am so foreign to this audience. Seeing Rachel’s comments about that integration with military and civilian perspective can be incredibly beneficial to both parties. How? I have no idea, but maybe coming together to talk about something that isn’t about the military/jobs, but rather an activity that can be created together. Those masks that were shown in the video, about carrying pain, guilt, multiple identities all the time are experiences that non-military people go through all the time (PTSD, as Kitsa explained). There are so many things to explore in the healing process and glad to see that such a building archetype that was once seen as exclusive can now be inclusive to many different audiences and be used in a manner to regain some sense of humanity.


    1. ewcook16

      This aspect of addressing both military and civilian perspectives was one that struck me, as well. How do you address one without neglecting the other, in ways that are beneficial to both? However, I think programs that address both perspectives, at their heart, are not necessarily about holistic healing in veterans with PTSD and/or TBI, but rather have a broader outcome about mutual understanding and civic unity. And that’s fine! But I wonder if there is a way to run complementary programs or exhibits. One might address the unique trauma of people with PTSD and other TBIs, while another would run in conjunction to educate the public about these issues and involve the community in addressing them.


  3. Becca Ljungren

    Thank you for such a wonderful analysis of one of the most important types of healing– creative healing. One of the most important lessons to learn from this study is that the creative healing process can be used in so many other instances, including (but not limited to) other mental health degradation sufferers, and even other physical maladies. Art and creativity of any kind is so natural to the human condition, though often discarded, and I’m glad to see even the most hardened of war veterans and their families embracing the magic of creating!


  4. annastewart323

    What most interests me about this topic is the sense of community building. I think this is a fascinating concept in general but especially in relation to veterans (with or without PTSD). It seems the process of re-entry to civilian life is more difficult and trying than many give credit to publicly. Museums can offer such an amazing opportunity for the veteran community and also the broader local community as you have beautifully shown. With such projects, people are given a chance to understand someone else’s experiences and then participate in the same programs. This mutual participation gives a shared experience, acting as a bridge and forging that elusive common ground. Bringing these communities together and giving them something to relate to can help to make that process of re-entry and healing easier.



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