Comfort and Connectivity: The Museum as Healer

Inclusion involves connecting with groups/individuals and their experiences. Below, you’ll read about Anne Melton’s thesis work that looked at how select museums responded to traumatic events and community grief. These examples stretch our understanding of the role of museums in society while demonstrating the breadth of what inclusion means.

When museum consultant Elaine Gurian visited the University of Washington Museology Graduate Program, she made a comment that when Princess Diana died in a car accident in 1997, museums in England did not see it as their responsibility to provide a space for the public to grieve and mourn the loss of their beloved monarch. As a result, memorials for the Princess sprang up in less than ideal spaces. Throughout London, piles of flowers reached nearly five feet high and over one million bouquets were left. After her funeral, Kensington Palace was open to the public so that people could sign a condolence book for her family. Tens of thousands of people waited in line for hours for a chance to leave their messages.

Memorializing Princess Di

It was this comment and curiosity regarding the phenomenon of public grieving that inspired my thesis research. In the University of Washington Museology Program’s “Introduction to Museology” course, students are taught about the museum’s move into a more civic role and the social service utility of museums, citing examples from the Great Depression, World War II, and in the aftermath of 9/11. Stories of how people flocked to museums to find refuge and comfort in the aftermath of tragedy were particularly compelling. Why would people seek out a museum as the place to go to find solace? What is it about a museum that can help people feel better? These were the initial questions that guided this research.

The intent of my research was to address how and why museums can be effective places to help resolve grief and transcend suffering in the aftermath of tragic events. The objective being to identify action patterns that can help inform museum practice. I looked at 4 different case studies of contemporary museum responses to tragedy which all met a particular set of established criteria. The four case studies selected were:

  1. The Oklahoma Museums Association’s “A Day for Children” event following the bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building
  2. The Experience Music Project Museum’s hosting of a tribute, memorial service, and encouraging audience expression following the death of musician Michael Jackson
  3. The Field Museum’s panel discussions, performances, and use of a permanent exhibit to interpret and understand the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001
  4. The Oakland Museum of California’s annual Days of the Dead celebration as a tribute to slain journalist, Chauncey Bailey

Memorial for slain journalist Chauncey Bailey

Memorial for MJ in Hollywood

My research was frontloaded with areas of study quite unfamiliar to me, including traumatology, psychology, grief studies, mental health, and sociology. This helped me to frame the nature of grief, and understand how people embark on an intensely personal journey in order to transcend suffering and heal. By conducting this initial research, I learned that there are particular ways in which grief is resolved as well as tools and actions that contribute to healing after tragedies:

  1. Personal connections which are supported by continuity and help develop a sense of personal wholeness
  2. Rituals or ceremonies that provide a forum for the expression of emotion and focus on healing and closure
  3.  Acts of creation which are physical manifestations of grief
  4. The necessity to take a visual reprieve from imagery of a tragedy
  5. Strong social support from family or community which collectively address a tragedy’s impact and consequences
  6. When community leaders respond in one or more of the following ways:
    1.  Cognitively (through discussion, planning, and education)
    2. Physically (action rituals, rest periods)
    3. Emotionally (through rituals, expression of feelings)
    4. Spiritually (through funeral ceremonies)
    5. Creatively (through the arts)
    6. Practically (through legal action)

By examining each case study in the above contexts, it became very clear that museums can indeed be effective in helping their communities and audiences transcend suffering by utilizing their unique individual resources. This can be accomplished by acting as a gathering place where people can be in the presence of others, providing social support and an environment that supports grieving, and/or executing programming, exhibits, or events that respond to a variety of community needs which help that community resolve its grief and regain equilibrium to function fully once again.

Anne Melton received her MA Museology from the University of Washington in June 2012 and currently works at the Northwest African American Museum in Seattle, WA.  If you would like more info regarding her research into museums and their potential role in the healing process or have any questions please comment here or email us at

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This blog post was cited on Elaine Heumann Gurian’s website!


  1. After last week’s shooting, I’d be interested to hear Anne’s thoughts about what the museum field can do for smaller, rural communities like Newtown. As best I can tell, the city has a historical society and an in-development children’s museum. What scalable options might exist for small institutions like these to still help their community? What, if any, resources could the broader field provide to Newtown?

    On a slight aside, I read this article ( in the Denver Post today about grief, peace, and finding solace in works of art. Sad to see now museologists were represented, but maybe we can change that going forward.

  2. I did find this article from the Association of Children’s Museums ( through AAM’s Twitter feed.

  3. Thank you for your question, Andrea.

    Upon hearing the news of the tragedy in Newton last Friday, and as grim and heart wrenching details continued to emerge, I too thought about the role of museums in the aftermath of this tragedy in Newton and beyond. I wished—and not for the first time—that my research could be entirely irrelevant.

    One of the things that surprised me most while looking at the responses of the four case study museums I analyzed was that each museum utilized the resources they already had including: their space, partnerships, existing programming, staff expertise, and the museum’s collection. All four institutions also created new programming; however, the response by all was rapid and therefore necessitated new programs that did not require extensive planning or materials.

    One necessary component to healing is the need of people to come together and be in the presence of others. From the museum perspective, this can be as simple as opening up our doors and being a gathering place. This can help our audiences form personal connections and be in an environment that supports grieving. Strong social support which collectively addresses the impact and consequences of a tragedy in individual lives and social networks aids in the resolution of grief. In addition, museums can act as spaces of refuge where one can gain a reprieve from disturbing imagery of a tragedy.

    Facilitating an opportunity for audience expression of emotion and via acts of creation are other community response methods that can provide a focus on healing, as these creations become physical manifestations of grief. These can be through actions as simple and economical as comment books, or in the case of EMP, the availability of sidewalk chalk and the concrete canvass in front of the museum.

    I could go on and on, but the simple conclusion is that museums are already poised to be one resource for communities experiencing tragedy and be one part of the complex processes of grief and healing. Even the most low cost actions can make an impact. Of course, it is important to note that no two communities are exactly alike, but based on my four case studies, patterns emerged that could potentially be replicated at other museums.

    For the community of Newton, I wish for peace, comfort, healing, and hope.

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