Relationships with objects are primary to human growth, development and mental health: they are a core element of our psychological metabolism. In therapy, as in museums, as in life, objects are companions in experience; witnesses to the past and present; connectors to people, places and experiences; devices for communion; for holding on and for letting go; and in their wordlessness are at times, the only means through which we can discover or express otherwise inaccessible concepts and emotions. Objects are signifiers of self and identity, the individual’s relationship with the family/society, and personal power/primal self, and provide the cognitive and phenomenological characteristics necessary for and inherent to meaning making. In object-based therapeutic practices, this primacy of objects in psychological development and meaning-making plays a functional role in fostering the competencies necessary to healing, and maintaining mental health and well-being.

The theory of Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics is a study of the healthful and healing impacts inherent within the dynamic human-object relationship, with implications for museums and mental health experts. This original research coalesces around contemporary psychotherapeutic practice and experiences of people with objects in museum settings, and supports a premise that exhibition experiences are potent and unique in their ability to foster wellbeing and psychological healing.

Researchers associate professor of exhibition design Brenda Cowan, clinical psychotherapist Jason McKeown, and counsellor Ross Laird, share a belief that objects keep us well – often without our knowledge – and through understanding the psychological underpinnings of the human-object relationship, we can in turn see how museums are places of health and healing, and further the vital dialogue between the therapeutic and museum communities. Their theory’s framework presents seven dynamic human-object actions that are inherent, psychologically primary, seemingly universal, and a part of how we by nature, use objects in particular ways that support wellness and promote healing. Simplistically put, the theory suggests that objects are a meaningful and intrinsic part of our lives because they are fundamentally necessary to our mental health. Much like we need certain vitamins and minerals for our bodies to be healthy, so do humans need object engagement, and we can look to specific forms of engagement to identify the ways in which objects give us those necessary nutrients.

The research into the underlying factors of the human-object relationship is contextualized in scholarship and practice in material culture, museum studies, psychology, psychotherapy, and the social sciences, and builds upon foundational theories and applied practice in the attributes and characteristics of objects, object-based experience, the phenomenology of museum engagement, and research in object-based health, well-being, and healing. The theory was initiated by Brenda Cowan in 2015 via field research at an adolescent wilderness therapy facility in North Carolina. The research partnership with Ross Laird and Jason McKeown was formed in 2016, and included empirical qualitative case study work performed with museums in the US, Bosnia-Herzegovina and in 2018, following an introduction from Happy Museum, with Derby Museum and Art Gallery,

The team worked with Andrea Hadley-Johnson (@andreanhj) and her team who were in the throes of developing a new co-produced gallery, Objects of Love, Hope and Fear: a World Collection.  Focusing on the creation of a digital Objects of Love collection, the researchers met with people from the wider Derby community including new arrivals to the city and asked questions about the meaning of loved objects in people’s lives and how connections with those objects can help us maintain health and wellbeing.  In a Case Study with Object Donors, Staff and Visitors to the Derby Museum and Art Gallery you can read more about the observed psychotherapeutic object dynamics of Associating, Synergising, Touching, Composing, Giving/Receiving, Releasing/Unburdening and Touching.  Ross Laird also wrote this interesting blog about the work.

The case studies in all four museums explored object engagement with everyday and mundane objects, objects from nature, and objects in museums, and included a broad range of participants including museum object donors, visitors, curators, restoration specialists, staff, administrators, volunteers, historians, media experts, and museum professionals. The sample included long term residents of the various museum communities, international tourists, refugees, visiting museum professionals, students and immigrants. The work continues with the development of the theory’s framework as a tool for evaluating the healthful impacts of exhibition and audience experiences, and as an instrument in innovative therapeutic practice in a variety of settings.

If you would like to read more about this research or contact Brenda Cowan and her colleagues direct here is her website dedicated to the framework: