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Cultivating healing spaces:Trauma-informed practice in museums

Trauma-informed practice in museums with Claire Bown and Jackie Armstrong
A conversation with Jackie Armstrong at MoMA

Today I’m chatting to Jackie Armstrong, Associate Educator Visitor Research and Experience at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York about trauma-informed practice in museums and its transformative impact.

Museums have come a long way from being places that ‘just’ showcase history and culture. Museums are now engaging with various other complex issues that reflect the diverse and evolving concerns of society, such as climate change, mental health and wellbeing, immigration and refugees, and systemic racism.

However, these subjects often involve various forms of trauma, making them challenging to handle effectively. Visitors may experience trauma when exposed to artworks, objects or thematic content in exhibitions. Educators can face trauma from interactions with visitors, and additionally all staff may struggle with organisational upheaval and burnout, leading to their own encounters with traumas.

As museums embrace complex and meaningful issues such as climate change, mental health and wellbeing, and immigrant and refugee experiences, they are recognising the profound impact of trauma on individuals and communities.

In response, adopting a trauma-informed approach becomes crucial for museums to create supportive empathetic, and healing spaces that respect diverse perspectives and uplift both visitors and staff.

Today I have the privilege of talking to Jackie Armstrong, Associate Educator Visitor Research and Experience at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York about trauma-informed practice in museums and its transformative impact.

In this far-reaching conversation, Jackie shares her expertise on trauma-informed practice, shedding light on how museums can become more inclusive and supportive spaces for all visitors.

Drawing from her own experiences with trauma, mental health, and disability, she passionately advocates for integrating trauma-informed values into the very fabric of a museum’s culture and programming.

Join us as we explore the importance of trauma-informed practice, its impact during the pandemic, and MoMA’s innovative initiative, Artful Practices for Well-Being. We’ll also discover how MoMA’s slow looking program embraces trauma-informed principles, creating meaningful connections with art and visitors.

Content warning: please note that this episode contains brief references to sensitive topics. Please take care when listening.


Claire Bown: Hi Jackie, and welcome to The Art Engager podcast.

Jackie Armstrong: Hi. Thank you so much for having me.

Claire Bown: It’s a pleasure to have you here. So perhaps you could explain for our listeners where you are right now,

Jackie Armstrong: Sure. I’m in the Hell’s Kitchen neighbourhood of Manhattan and New York City in my apartment this morning.

Claire Bown: and what is it that you do and where you do it.

Jackie Armstrong: So my title is Associate Educator Visitor Research and Experience. I’m part of the interpretation, research and Digital learning team in the Learning and Engagement Department at the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA), which is a long explanation. But what I actually do is a lot of visitor research and evaluation, both within my department and then working with other departments across the museum.

So everything from in-gallery interviews, user testing, observational studies, focus groups, all of that. And then also working a fair bit on interpreter resources and some programmatic stuff as well.

Claire Bown: Brilliant, and, and I know your work through the Artful Practices for Wellbeing. I’ve participated in quite a few of your slow looking sessions and one of the main reasons why I invited you on the podcast is to talk about trauma-informed practice. So I read an article of yours on the, AAM, the American Association for Museum’s website, and I thought it’d be a really interesting subject to discuss on this podcast as well.

So perhaps we could start right at the beginning. And talk about what trauma is. Could you give us a definition? Because I think sometimes there’s a little bit of confusion about what trauma actually is.

Jackie Armstrong: Sure. And there’s actually so many definitions out there too that I think that adds to the confusion. But the definition I use actually comes out of Somatic Experiencing, which is a body-based type of therapy developed by Dr. Peter Levine to kind of deal with the after effects of trauma. And personally somatic experiencing is something that I’ve found really helpful in my own journey of healing from trauma.

But the definition of trauma is anything that is too much too soon and too fast for our nervous system to handle where there isn’t time or space to process and integrate that experience.

And trauma is also too much for too long, where a nervous system doesn’t get a chance to settle where it operates from a place of feeling constantly under threat.

And it’s also what didn’t happen, such as not having someone attuned to you or not receiving the care and support you needed during a traumatic experience or after one.

Something else I always like to kind of bring into the definition that’s not specifically spelled out in this one, is dissociation because it is such a core part of trauma.

In fact, a lot of trauma scholars will define trauma as that which causes dissociation. So it’s because trauma creates this sense of life-threatening powerlessness and deep overwhelm through the nervous system that a person’s brain will push the trauma out of mind. And so that’s where the dissociation comes in.

And sometimes people will confuse traumatic experiences with trauma, but they’re actually separate, but interconnected experience. So you know, one person or two people might have the exact same traumatic experience, but then only one of them will have symptoms of trauma or maybe develop like Complex PTSD or PTSD.

Claire Bown: Yeah. That’s so interesting because I think for a lot of people the ideai Idea of trauma in their head is probably the most closely related to traumatic experience rather than trauma itself. Yeah.

Jackie Armstrong: And it’s so much about what happens inside of you versus the event. Like the event. It’s its own thing, but it’s what happens inside of you, how your nervous system really processes it, that that’s the actual trauma piece of it.

Claire Bown: So my next question is to do with museums. Why is it so hard for museums to accept the importance of trauma-informed practice? And I took this from some of your writings, things I’d read about as well, and I wondered why this was the case. Perhaps you could explain some of your thoughts around this.

Jackie Armstrong: Sure. It’s definitely a question that I’ve had a lot of time to think about because it’s come up a lot. From other people and from my own experiences, but I think there’s a lot of things actually at play. And it’s both related to maybe individual responses, but also kind of larger institutional and societal responses to trauma.

I think first there’s a lack of awareness and or knowledge of about trauma. I don’t feel a lot of people realise how pervasive trauma actually is, how deeply entrenched it is in society, in our institutions, our systems, our histories, or really realise how intense and sprawling the impact of trauma is.

I think there’s also a tendency in society to turn away from really tough things.

And I’m not saying that as a criticism, but I believe it has a lot to do with survival mechanisms we all have. I do think generally that means a lot of trauma gets ignored or dismissed. There’s a lot of individual and collective dissociation people just trying to get by and deal with life, and it makes me think of this quote by Peter Levine that says, ‘trauma is the most avoided, denied, ignored, misunderstood, and untreated cause of human suffering.’

Another reason, I think it’s because trauma just get normalised so much that people don’t often see it unless they’ve experienced it, acknowledged it, and are actually working through it. For example, you can think about how generational trauma can get passed down and carried on. People often don’t realize the patterns and behaviours they or other people are continuing or even recognize their carrying trauma with them because it becomes so familiar .

And then a further reason I think there’s like an issue with kind of acknowledging it is that there’s just a lot of fear about doing something wrong or feeling like trauma is too complex, so it’s best to steer clear of it.

I always try to point out that in trauma-informed practice, trauma is a lens and not a label.

 So, in museums for example, we aren’t assessing someone for trauma, diagnosing anyone, anything along those lines. There are a lot of parameters to this work.

Trauma-informed practice isn’t therapy. It’s not something designated to specific settings or careers such as mental health or the medical field.

It’s actually for everyone, because it’s a framework and guide.

And so, whenever I introduce trauma-informed practice, I also bring up concepts like emotional activation, chronic stress, nervous system regulation, because I feel that those are helpful ways into the subject for people and they speak to this embodied nature of all of it.

And then the last thing I will say about this too is that many people are unclear about what trauma-informed practices are not just trauma. So, there’s misunderstanding there too.

And my sense is sometimes people think I’m talking about some really heavy-handed approach or that I’m calling everything trauma, and that’s not the case at all. Often once people learn about trauma-informed practice, they can see the connection to museum work and everything else, but at first they just assume that it means something else.

People sometimes, again, have the initial assumption that it’s only related to clinical or therapeutic settings, or that it’s only for people who identify as having trauma, and neither of those things are true.

Claire Bown: Yeah. So many of those reasons, I was kind of nodding my head along with what you were saying as well, because I’ve recognised a lot of those. And I’ve also recognised, I mean, for myself, I think my, my knowledge of what trauma-informed practice is has grown. Probably during and after the pandemic.

That was when I really noticed articles that I started reading things. I started hearing about it. And, and the more I read about it, the more I was curious about it and it really did change my opinion of what I thought or assumed it might be or it might look like. So, I think it’s really helpful to, to clear those up here.

So did the pandemic have an effect. Did it change things?

Jackie Armstrong: Yes, absolutely. And I think when you said about all the articles that came out, there was a lot of material that came out during that time. I think a lot of people were starting to digest some of that. I think why it changed things is because although everyone experienced a pandemic differently, it was a collective trauma.

A collective trauma is a shared psychological and emotional reaction to a catastrophic event that affects very large number of people. It impacts daily lives of many people. There’s actually a paper in Frontiers in Psychology from 2018 where Gilead Hirschberger writes about a collective trauma also being a crisis of meaning.

And I always go back to that because I think it relates so well to Covid 19 pandemic because we all have this memory of it, and together we also reconstruct memories as a way to make sense of things. And so individual and collectively we make meaning from our experiences. And I also think pretty much everyone has some sense of the pandemic in their bodies even now, or experienced the shock, confusion, and dysregulation of the pandemic in their bodies.

At the start of it, it’s this common point of reference we all have. So since almost everyone has some kind of felt-sense of the pandemic in their body and likely had a taste of what fight, flight and freeze symptoms feel like, people who previously didn’t see the need for trauma-informed practice suddenly saw its value.

But trauma-informed practice was needed before, obviously, and we will continue to need it. Trauma is unfortunately part of life.

I know at MoMA, for example, when staff were sheltering in place at home and the museum was closed to the public, that’s when I heard a lot more people acknowledging that trauma-informed practices were needed.

People’s personal experiences during that time reinforced the need. And I think some people were experiencing a sense of trauma in their bodies for the first time, but for others I think it’s possible that the fear and tension uncertainty of the time dislodged older trauma and that just became part of their awareness.

And it wasn’t just the threat of the virus that disregulated people’s nervous system, we all lacked context. Our choices were reduced. Connection was disrupted.

And context, connection and choice are central to nervous system regulations. So again, that link back to trauma.

And then the other thing I think that made people more inclined to acknowledge the need for trauma-informed practice is that work responsibilities in some sense shifted a bit, at least in the museum field.

As more people work from home, there’s a little bit more space for reflection and brainstorming, and I think this created space for initiatives such as Artful Practices for Wellbeing to emerge, as well as other trauma-informed types of programme and initiatives at other museums, it was kind of a time to experiment and try things on.

And I think people were focusing more on what is really important in life during that time, because there was this recognition of mass suffering happening.

Claire Bown: Yeah. Yeah, absolutely. I hear you mentioned Artful Practices for Wellbeing there, and I know that trauma-informed practice informs the whole of this initiative and the programming that you do.

So perhaps we could talk first about what trauma-informed practice is, what it looks like.

Jackie Armstrong: Yeah. So I’d start just by saying to me it’s a trauma informed practice is a way of being, and I feel like it’s a responsibility as well. But there are particular values and principles that make up make up trauma informed practice. So I actually came across Dr. Truman’s book, “A Treasure Box for creating trauma-informed organizations” in 2021, and really resonated with the trauma-informed principles and values that she outlines over others I’ve come across.

So, Dr. Truman’s trauma-informed principles and values build off ones such as those outlined by the substance abuse and mental health services, National Center for Trauma-Informed Care, and I believe offer a more nuanced framework that can be helpful in a variety of contexts, especially museums.

People hear the term or the phrase, trauma-informed practice and for some reason assume it’s focused on deficits, but trauma-informed practices are actually asset-based.

Trauma is a normal response to threat and trauma-informed practice acknowledges that and recognizes that everyone has the capacity to survive, heal, and thrive, but we need to address the inequalities that can cause and are worsened trauma and get in the way of healing.

Also, the other point about trauma-informed practices is that they are or should be connected to accessibility, inclusivity, and social justice.

A practice is not trauma-informed if those lenses are missing. I’ve encountered mindfulness practitioners, therapists, healthcare workers, and others who say they’re trauma-informed, but actually are not. It’s fairly common. There are also trauma scholars who know a lot about trauma but are actually not trauma informed.

And of course there are some great folks out there too who are trauma-informed and doing amazing work. But I mentioned this as the cautionary that just becomes someone or some organisation or whatever, says they’re trauma-informed. Doesn’t necessarily mean they are.

To me, the best trauma-informed practice considers people with lived experiences of trauma and actually takes in what they say.

I find it really frustrating and harmful how often people with lived experiences are ignored or dismissed. In my own experience, I feel like some of the people I’ve been in treatment with for eating disorder or trauma were more trauma-informed than many of the people in charge of our care.

It’s great to have a trauma-informed person in your life, but really what’s needed are trauma-informed environment, a trauma-informed society. I doubt we will ever have a trauma-informed society, unfortunately, but I think it’s possible that we can create more spaces and environments are trauma-informed, kind of like these trauma-informed pockets woven throughout the fabric of society.

Claire Bown: Yeah, that’s a really good point where museums might come into this as well. Yeah. So perhaps we could look at what we gain by integrating trauma-informed practices into our work?

Jackie Armstrong: Sure. So, I think I wanted to start with a personal example before relating this back to museum work because I think it might help people better understand just how important it is to learn about and be aware of trauma and to engage in trauma-informed practices. And then kind of go into why institutionally.

I think it’s really relevant and what we can gain, but personally, I feel like learning about trauma and trauma-informed practice not only transformed my life for the better, but saved me. And that might sound like a bit much or maybe overly dramatic at first. But it’s really true. When I didn’t have awareness about my own trauma, I was more susceptible to additional trauma.

I was more prone to getting caught in re-enactments of past trauma, which is super common. Trauma had become so normalised to me that I felt powerless to abuse from others. It didn’t even feel real at times. I wasn’t able to keep myself safe. I didn’t have confidence. I felt worthless, really, and I blamed myself for everything.

So I was carrying my weight of shame again, something really common for people with trauma. I just assumed I was broken. And anything bad that happened was because of me. I had little compassion for myself, if any. All the trauma experience was so internalised that it came out in ways that were incredibly harmful to me, such as a several decades long battle with anorexia.

But when I finally learned about trauma, dissociation, and trauma-informed practice, things began to change for the better. Learning about these things changed the way I understood myself and conversely treated myself. I also didn’t feel as at risk of being abused and traumatised by other people as I was before.

Of course, bad things can happen and do, but I’m able to see those for what they are. I can acknowledge them when they happen. I don’t take on the blame. I don’t constantly feel like prey.

Something a lot of people don’t know is that two years ago I was sexually assaulted by a medical professional and I really feel that if I didn’t know about trauma and trauma-informed practice, that could have been my undoing, especially over coupled with trauma experienced earlier in life.

But this time with the awareness and knowledge I had, I was able to name the experience for what it was. I took care of myself because I had compassion for what I went through. I was able to assign blame appropriately to the person who harm me. I didn’t internalise shame, and I was able to process and integrate the experience so that it didn’t continue to negatively impact me.

This doesn’t mean the experience wasn’t awful or that I didn’t freeze when it occurred and felt powerless in the moment. It also doesn’t mean I didn’t grapple with what happened or have strong emotions around the experience. But it didn’t consume me in the same way older trauma did. It didn’t take on additional meaning.

It didn’t cause me to stop going to see other doctors. It didn’t unravel my life. So prior to understanding trauma and acknowledging in my life, I just felt broken, hopeless, and live with deep psychological pain. And while things may not be easy, understanding trauma has introduced some ease into my life.

Trauma-informed practice really guides my interactions with myself and others every single day. So thinking back now, or, you know, linking this to museums for individuals, working in museums and for organisations and institutions in general, there’s a lot to gain from working with trauma-informed practice for the individuals and the collective.

First, it’s a human-centred approach, which can translate to many things, a better working environment, improve relations. Greater sense of wellbeing, clear communication, more authentic interactions, reduce micro aggressions and so much more.

I think trauma-informed practice can help museums be more responsive to staff needs and audiences, communities, issues and events. I think it can model a better way of living really. I think if museums had a culture centred on trauma-informed practice, they would navigate various situations and challenges better, preventing harm from occurring in the first place, or reducing harm.

And I think trauma-informed practice is integral to DEAI work, and without it, the work falls short. We can’t talk about intersectionality in my mind either without talking about trauma. This is really why I’m so passionate about not excluding trauma from the conversations or jumping so far ahead and kind of throwing trauma to the side. Sometimes people will say, oh, but what about healing-centred practice? Or we should be focusing on social emotional learning. And my instinct is always to want to hit the pause button because true trauma informed practices should always include healing centred practices anyways.

And in my opinion, we can’t have healing centred practices or social emotional learning without a clear understanding of trauma and trauma-informed practice because that really is the guide and framework. If trauma and trauma-informed practice are kept out of conversations or pushed to the side-lines, we run the risk of traumatising or re-traumatising.

So, understanding the many factors that contribute to an individual’s lived experience is the basis of trauma-informed practice. And I think those tend to get really glossed over, forgotten about.

And it’s not something I see happen in museums a lot of times too. So, kind of putting the emphasis on people more than objects in art.

And that includes staff, not just our visitors. Really like taking in what people are saying, what they’re, what they’re needing what they’re experiencing.

Claire Bown: Yeah, as you say, it’s a human-centred approach, isn’t it? Thank you so much for sharing sharing what you did. Can’t have been easy sharing that, sharing the personal lens about your experiences and then being able to relate that to how it has informed your understanding of trauma and trauma-informed practice and how then that might translate into work in museums.

For us as educators, we’re both museum educators here. How can we practically embrace these trauma-informed values in our work and in our practice? How can we walk the walk?

Jackie Armstrong: Yeah, that’s a good question. I think the first thing is just by asking ourselves if we are in alignment with trauma-informed practice. Kind of looking back to those values and principles, that’s something I do a lot. In some areas of our work and our life, we might actually already be in alignment with them.

But in other ways we may realise that we aren’t, or that there’s more work that needs to be done.

I also think that this ongoing process of learning, unlearning and learning again, there isn’t really an end to this kind of work. So being prepared to engage in this lifelong process related to this, I’d also say, go slow.
This isn’t something built overnight. It takes time, presence, patience, and practice.

The other piece of this is working on emotional self-regulation. When you’re self-regulated, you’re able to have a better quality of connection with yourself and others. Seeing things more clearly, you can realize the possibilities and choices out there for particular situations.

Handle the ups and downs of the day, co-regulate with other people and so much more. Self-regulation really makes life a lot more manageable. And, of course, no one is self-regulated all the time, but it’s something that people can learn to keep reorienting towards. By being aware of one’s activation and internal responses.

And it’s also something that we can kind of model for other people, whether colleagues or our audiences. So that kind of is really a big piece of this.

Some other suggestions I would have is kind of building reflection into your work and life, actively making space for it. It’s really essential part of this, leaning into vulnerability, of course, not leaning so far in that you feel like in danger, but like just leaning in a bit more to vulnerability.

Practicing deep listening and atunement. Sharing power, recognising strength, celebrating one another, taking time, being responsive rather than reactive, respecting autonomy and upholding dignity, building trust, communicating clearly, being congruent in your interactions.

So that’s another way to like build trust with people. So, show up authentically and respect and uphold boundaries of yourself and others. I think those are kind of things that I try to live by. I don’t do them perfectly, but I feel like, again, this is all in alignment with trauma-informed practice and it’s kind of like a checklist of things to kind of refer back to.

Claire Bown: Yeah, I think it’s a wonderful list to refer to and to think about as well, that self-awareness. I think a lot of this is about developing that self-awareness and how that informs our work, how we show up, how we connect to others how we. Design things. All of this is linked back to, you know, being, being much more aware of who we are when we are in the museum or we are with people. So some really helpful tips there. So how can museums themselves use this to better support, on the one hand, their visitors, but also their staff?

You’ve already talked about being more human-centred and really supporting the staff, but how can, how can they do this?

Jackie Armstrong: So. Yeah, that’s, I think there’s a lot of different ways. I mean, it really filters into every aspect of museum culture and organisation. So, it can be everything from like how leadership functions, human resources, employee working groups, trainings, professional development opportunities, and then for visitors, like can touch on marketing, interpretation, programming, tours, art making.

There’s a lot more specific examples that I can share about like what it looks like in practice, but I think. There’s no place where this doesn’t fit into the museum experience really. So I think if this is the lens you’re looking through, there’s so many positive changes that can really be made.

Claire Bown: Yeah, so that might. It be something to do with meetings. It might be something to do with how you design your programs, how you facilitate your programs. All of these are, are ways that you could think about incorporating these principles.

Jackie Armstrong: Yes, exactly.

Claire Bown: I’d love to move on to talking about the Artful Practices for Wellbeing Initiative. So, could you tell us a little bit about it, how it got started and what it is?

Jackie Armstrong: Sure. So, it’s an initiative that was created in the spring of 2020 with the idea of offering ideas for enhancing wellbeing with art as a kind of jumping off point for inspiration. Some themes or areas of focus in this initiative are connection, compassion, non-judgment, comfort, and care groundedness, curiosity, playfulness, rest and recovery, hope. The themes we engage with actually shift slightly based on what’s happening in the world and the needs and interests of audiences, collaborators, and staff.

Back in 2020. This initiative really started with the questions, what do people need right now? What will people need going forward? How can we help? What are we able to offer? And kind of what are our parameters?

And I think it’s important to keep coming back to these questions and seeing what has changed over time. I really wanted Artful Practices for Wellbeing to not only be something that had trauma-informed programming or experiences for people to join, but also for it to be a resource of tools, tips, ideas that people could leave or take as they chose.

My goal has always been that it would meet people where they are and that there were no expectations on how people engage. Whatever their capacity was in a given day was okay. what I especially wanted to avoid was toxic positivity or wellness messages that felt empty handed because those never sit well with me.

I wanted to be sure we didn’t shy away from acknowledging what was or is difficult or painful. I think we all really wanted balance and there’s room for the positive in this, of course, that’s really important. Curiosity has been such an important driver in my own life when I couldn’t fully grasp on to hope, and I think curiosity can create space for hope, which is really vital.

So a lot of the invitations are about being curious about what you see, feel, and think. That kind of winds it away into like a lot of the programming.

I think of Artful Practices for Wellbeing to not only be something that had trauma-informed programming or experiences for people as not just something visitors and audience is outside the museums participate in, but also work that happens around trauma-informed practice amongst colleagues. It’s part of this ongoing learning process internally at the museum. It has grown very slowly, and sometimes I get frustrated by that because I see all the possibilities for it. But at the same time, I think it has been important to go slow with it, particularly in nurturing the relationships that are part of it.

And right now we’re brainstorming ways to make artful practices for wellbeing globally accessible on digital platforms and thinking about new content.

And I’m excited that in the near future we’ll be able to reach more people who might be interested, offer new ways to engage with these ideas, and collaborate with some really great people whose practices are aligned with trauma-informed practice.

Claire Bown: So aligned with that is the slow looking programme, which I’ve participated in. And I think it’s a fantastic programme. I love the way it’s designed. I love the way it’s set up. I love the way it makes you feel. So perhaps you could explain a little bit about the principles, the values that you hold dear when you are creating these.

Jackie Armstrong: Sure. So yeah, it’s a free public programme that begin in 2020 and it’s part of the Artful Practice for Wellbeing Initiative. The programme is usually an hour to an hour and a half. It really depends on what artwork we’re working with or what collaborator we’re working with.

And we invite people to look at one work of art together over that time and throughout the time there are different ways we look at the work of art you know, with verbal description, with creative responses, with drawing, with movement, really using all of her senses. And there’s multiple invitations or offers to participate. Lots of choice built into this programme. Most of the slow looking programs have been online so far.

We’ve had one in person. But we’re going to continue with a hybrid model going forward and hopefully do more, probably have a more balance of onsite in it virtual. The team really works to integrate and model trauma-informed practices. But we don’t advertise it as trauma-informed. It’s a, it’s a framework and it’s embedded into the programme and the way we work together.

And so ,some of the things we really think about when crafting this programme, number one, is pacing. You know, we really want to slow down and kind of push back against urgency. We do a lot of repetition, gradual building scaffolding. We really try to practice co-regulating with the audience and with ourselves.

Those are all, again, essential to nervous system regulation. And then we also in terms of pacing, we could do many more of these programs per year, but we want to give ourselves a lot of breathing room between them to prioritise being thoughtful about how we approach each one. So we only do about three or four. It’s pretty seasonal, like one per season.

I’d also say what happens behind the scenes is just as important to what visitors see. Again, our relational work behind the scenes involves vulnerability and authenticity, holding space for one another. We’ve noticed that this is really felt by our audiences and mirrored back. And through our interactions we get to model what belonging connection feels like and also work together to co-regulate emotionally and energetically.

So I sometimes feel like our meetings, you know, behind the scenes are very like therapeutic for a lot of us, and they’re not always focused on the programme, sometimes it’s just processing what’s going on in that day too. And we’re kind of like our own little support group. And I think that actually is really important to the program itself.

Claire Bown: That comes across as well when you are taking part, when you’re participating in the program, you can really see the connections between the team. You seem very close, you seem very in tune with each other. And I’ve often wondered, how much rehearsal takes place because it seems very seamless the movement between the different sections and the different people, and it’s almost like you are intuitively knowing when to respond and when to work with each other. So yeah, it definitely comes across as a participant as well. So,

Jackie Armstrong: Funny because there’s not that many, we do a very quick rehearsal like a few days before to make sure like all the slides are okay and everything and get the timing right. But I think it’s just like us spending time together and really like taking time to get to know one another. Get to know like what what’s difficult for someone when someone needs more space, when they need more support and just like, I think that can, know it, it lends itself really well to this work. I think another key piece of the program too is we build in accessibility. So it’s not like this afterthought. We really want it to feel seamless and inclusive for everyone. So there’s like visual descriptions of all the artworks of ourselves, of the images you offer, live cart captioning for every session. We’re constantly finding other ways that we can tweak and make it more accessible, including, like recently we realized like our emails could be more accessible. We had images on our emails. We didn’t have alt texts for them. So there’s like little things, like there’s always changes being made. Yeah, again, I think I mentioned too about how critical it is to embed choice, voice, and agency in the design of the program. And we’re really transparent about how the experience will unfold to kind of give people the sense of stability and freedom at the same time.

So we’ll give plenty of options for people for how they engage and share throughout. And we’ll remind people that it’s important for them to check in with themselves and kind of see what feels okay because. Sometimes we ask like pretty deep questions. We don’t want someone to kind of be flooded by oversharing.

Not that we mind someone sharing too much, but it might not feel good afterwards. So we give like a lot of space for people to process if it feels okay to them. We work with collaborators from a variety of backgrounds to also uphold trauma-informed values. That’s really important to us, and they don’t all do it in the same way.

So, you know, everybody has like different backgrounds and experiences, but, there’s like a central piece that we all kind of rallying around. And I think it adds so much our dimension to our work and really helps us continue to learn and grow from one another.

Claire Bown: Yeah, I’m interested in how the artworks themselves work within the programmes, how they might serve as an entry point to some of the things you’re talking about.

Jackie Armstrong: Yeah, it’s really for us a lot of times about noticing like internal responses to them kind of being with our emotions, acknowledging our bodies as these sources of information and how all of this helps us understand ourselves and kind of examine the world we live in our relations to other people, you know, who are not participating that day or even to other participants.

There’s a lot that can happen in the chat where like, I think people are picking up one another’s energy and so like, the artwork is kind of like a, a chance for people to like practice, almost like noticing activation and kind of getting back to a place of being more regulated. And sometimes we do that really directly.

Like we worked with this wonderful person, Jennifer Sterling, who is a somatic experiencing dance movement therapists. And so she will guide, kind of help people like titrate their emotional experience throughout by having them like, really closely at you know, zoomed in parts and kind of noticing like what shifts, like what emotions come up, what thoughts come up and that kind of thing.

And like seeing how that changes over the course of the period. And like looking at the work of art from different angles and from different vantage points too. Depending on how we like zoom in or zoom out from my image. I think it’s like a skill that, I mean, I didn’t have before and like, I don’t, I think that’s something that like you need to really work at.

So it’s nice to have these opportunities to practice it kind of safely in a group and in a way, like the work of art creates a buffer in some ways. In the sense that like you’re not so focused on your own experiences, that it’s too much. If you do have, for example, maybe you have underlying trauma. work of art is where you’re going to place your energy. So you’re still doing some of the work, but it’s not so overwhelming that you can’t take it in. And we have a lot of conversations about the choices of work of art too, because we do want people to kind of leave the program feeling common grounded.

But that doesn’t mean that we don’t pick works that are difficult at the same time, because it’s sometimes like helping people how to be with that difficult material in a way that’s not. Like too much, like, you know, so you’re not flooding. So there’s like, there’s different techniques that we’ll try to work in.

Claire Bown: Yeah, I can imagine it must be quite a, a lengthy conversation when you are deciding on the choice of artworks. And it was definitely something, I was thinking about this yesterday as well, is although we talk about the power of observation, it’s not just about the looking, it’s not just about what we see and what our brain is saying, it’s also what we are feeling in our bodies as well when we are with an artwork.

And something I’ve noticed, something that’s changed since the pandemic is some of the emotional reactions that people are having when they are with an artwork. And that is very different to some of the conversations we were having before. So, yeah, that was I was thinking about with some of the things you’re talking about, whether it’s all connected, or not, but it’s definitely something that I’ve noticed.

Jackie Armstrong: Yeah, I’ve noticed that too. And I think sometimes what is really helpful or that I’ve noticed with people is that sometimes when you just give space to it, like if you name it and notice it and give it enough space, especially if it’s something that feels like a negative kind of reaction or like feels overpowering to you somehow, that if you name it, give it space. You can kind of work through it in that moment rather than if you try to push it down, I feel like it comes back a lot stronger, which is common sense I guess. But it’s like, I think natural for people to either want to move on from something really quickly if it’s, if it feels like too much or to kind of push it down.

And that to me only intensifies it. A lot of times, I’ll narrate my experience and I try to model that for other people. And I’ve seen visitors do that too when I’ve like did visitor journeys with people through the museum and we’re in front of works of art and they’re like, oh, this is making me feel kind of queasy inside and I’m not sure why.

And I think it really helps to work it through because then the impact isn’t as intense. It’s like lowers the intensity somehow and it’s like a good skill. That you’re learning from art about like they can bring into your own life.

Claire Bown: Absolutely. Yeah, that’s really useful. I wanted to touch as well on questioning, because I know that open-ended questions, we use a lot of open-ended questions when we’re, when we’re working with artworks, with objects in the museum, and we know they bring in lots of different perspectives. So yeah.

Talk to me a little bit about how open-ended questioning might need to be tweaked or could benefit from being tweaked in a trauma-informed way.

Jackie Armstrong: Yeah, I mean, I think open-ended questions are always the best choice in general because they do invite multiple perspectives and experiences, but they sometimes need to have enough specificity that it’s clear what’s being asked or to help people kind of filter information on their mind without becoming overwhelmed. Because you don’t want to have it so open that like you’re kind of dredging up so much material that it’s either material that maybe people don’t want to be dealing with, or it’s just like, just too much.

So just kind of striking that balance.

An example I have from like a training I went to like a few years ago, like a bad example was the icebreaker question was, what’s a favourite childhood memory you have? And it’s very open, it’s like too open.

But the other part of it too is like, you know, if people have had trauma from childhood, which is very common, that what ends up happening or what happened to me in that instance, and I think this is pretty common, is that, yes, like I’ve had happy childhood memories too, but my mind will immediately go and seek out the dark stuff. So ,when that question was asked, I got really dysregulated and like got in a panic and felt like I had to leave.

And so later on I was thinking about like, oh, how would I have made that question different if I was asking it?

Like, what’s a way to kind of you know, still maybe focus on childhood but to kind of narrow it or something. You could ask something like, what’s a favourite movie or book from when you were younger? Like, that’s a way to kind of like pull it in a little bit.

Also, another thing that I see that happens sometimes you know, there’ll be questions about like, family because sometimes artwork is about family or there’s like some element in there and so they’ll ask like a question to like a group about like family, whatever. Instead, I would always ask people to think about someone who’s been important in their life rather than using the term family, because like that’s such a, can be such a difficult topic for people and like I, it’s not always something that people want to like dive into in a museum context.

So, you know, someone important in your life could be like anybody. It could be like a, an author, a movie star. Especially if you’re dealing with kids, maybe that’s like more comfortable for them to have that openness to that question. I think you really want to give people space to bring themselves to an experience and help people sort through information about their experiences in a way that doesn’t overwhelm them or leave them feeling unexpectedly disoriented or exposed, especially in like a group setting.

And then I always think about like kind of key words around language that I try to like incorporate.

Like, is it invitational, is it nuanced? Am I being thoughtful? Is it nonjudgmental? Is there like some reflection in there? Is it authentic? Is it nonviolent and respectful of people lived experience.

For slow looking sometimes, we sometimes have spent like maybe a ridiculously long amount of time pondering one prompt or two prompts, and, but I think it’s like necessary sometimes, honestly, especially depending on where the question is going to come in.

If it’s a closing question, we don’t want to leave people hanging at the end of the thing and leave them in a bad place at the end of the programme. So it’s got to like tie everything together, but You really have to think about what do you want people to feel and leave with?

And just imagine, you don’t know what everybody’s bringing with them, but kind of have a sense of all the different experiences it could be in that space with you and really be mindful of that when you craft a question. So…

Claire Bown: Yeah, absolutely. Such a good tip of really thinking through your questions if you’re preparing questions in advance and thinking about where they will come in the programme and, and even reflecting on those questions afterwards and thinking about ways you might use them differently next time, or you might phrase them differently as you suggest.

We are coming close to time. We could carry on talking for much, much longer. But I wondered if you had any sort of final advice for anyone who’s interested in finding out more about adopting some of these trauma-informed practices in their work or in their programs or their experiences that they’re designing or facilitating.

Jackie Armstrong: Yeah, definitely. I would say to try to learn about trauma and trauma informed practice from multiple and varied sources. I think sometimes people will get stuck on like one book or One person, but there’s so much out there, so like really look wildly and including neurobiology and attachment stuff and like, there’s just so much out there.

Also, I think there’s a lot of good things coming out of like PhD programs right now. This is like a topic, so kind of looking at newer research as well. I, I would also say like listen or hear from people with lived experience, so make sure that’s like also part of your work. Attend different programs or experiences that seem like they might be trauma-informed practice.

So they’re not usually always advertised as such. Like I mentioned, the ones at MoMA aren’t, and I know a lot of other places don’t advertise them as that, but sometimes descriptions of the programs will give you clues about it. And sometimes I just get a feeling like, oh, I think this might be trauma-informed.

Let’s just take a look and see. Again, you can always use the trauma-informed values and principles to kind of guide your judgment around that. I also always recommend to like look outside the museum field. Libraries are doing great work. Theatre, public art organisations, community centres, education.

A lot of these places have been doing trauma-informed work for years. And so I think they’re quite a bit further ahead than us.

Find allies. That’s been really important to me. So, finding allies and people to talk to. Inside the museum and other places and just being available for talking to people who show interest in trauma-informed practice and kind of sharing, you know, what’s going on, what are your barriers, what’s working for you.

Work with collaborators who truly are a trauma-informed practice. So again, I think that can also really help build a case for this in the museum, if that’s something you want to do. Like, I know that’s been something where this has started off really small. I’m just trying to get like, buy in from our, my own department learning and engagement then, but also trying to make it more visible in the museum.

And so you really it can be helpful to work with people outside the museum to kind of like push that so that it’s more noticed. And then I’d say lastly, like to really take care of yourself in the process and not get discouraged because it can be like an exercise and like feeling defeated sometimes.

And like you’re, you’re going to have to be the one sometimes to like, Motivate yourself. Especially when like there’s people who are like, I don’t understand why this is like significant.

Claire Bown: Oh, some wonderful advice there. And any books or any articles that we’ve mentioned, we’ll include links to them in the show. Notes. But just finally, how can people reach out to you or find you online?

Jackie Armstrong: Sure. So I have a website which is And I have a Twitter account as well that I don’t post on there too much to be honest.

But I do share things that are happening in the museum field that I think is relevant. A lot of trauma informed stuff too.

Claire Bown: Okay, brilliant. Well, we’ll include links to those in the show notes and to the Artful Practices for Wellbeing Initiative as well, and any other links. That we can find. But I just wanted to say thank you so much, Jackie, for coming on the podcast and sharing so much value for our listeners.

It’s been a pleasure to talk to you.

Jackie Armstrong: Thank you. I love talking to you too, and I do feel like this is a topic that we could just spend like so much time talking about.

Claire Bown: We definitely could. Thank you again. Bye bye.

Jackie Armstrong: Bye.