The impact of curating traumatic histories

Image of the barbed wire and a watchtower at Auschwitz 1 concentration camp

When you think about occupations with the potential to harm your mental health, what comes to mind? Emergency services, social work, NHS? All of those. But what about working as a historian or curator? 


Recently I listened to an episode of the excellent Empire podcast with Vincent Brown, Professor of American History at Harvard University, whose specialisms include the history of slavery in the Americas. Presenter Anita Anand began with a question about how he coped with working in a field that required him to confront the ‘darkest corners of human existence’. She asked, ‘Does it not take a massive toll on your soul?’ 


This was his response (with my emphasis in bold): 


“What you do… is in some ways set aside some of your emotional response so that you can analyse what’s going on, so that you can read these sources and try to figure out, piece together what’s happening in this world…. You learn to manage your subconscious. You learn to manage your emotions. And I’ve analogised it to my students in the way that perhaps an emergency room doctor has to set aside the kind of emotional responses they might have to these life and death situations so that they can do their work. But then of course when someone goes to a family and has to tell the bereaved what might have happened to their loved one, one has to find that emotional response again otherwise there’s something inhuman about it. The same thing happens for me when I write or when I lecture. In order to analyse the sources that I’m looking at I have to in some ways kind of bracket and set aside my personal responses to them but then I have to find those again so that I can understand why it matters for an audience of listeners or an audience of readers”. 


This experience of self-management – of constantly disengaging and engaging your own emotional response to the subject matter to be able to do the work – is the most accurate description I’ve seen of the challenge of working with traumatic histories and articulates brilliantly something I’ve experienced in my own career. I worked for 15 years with Holocaust survivors and their families, eventually curating Holocaust Centre North’s permanent exhibition which tells the story of the Holocaust through the eyes of 16 refugees and survivors who made new lives in the north of England. I worked directly with the survivors and their descendants and spent many years immersed in a subject matter that is extraordinarily harrowing. 


Curating genocide

I’ll caveat what follows by saying that I’m not suggesting the work of curation is in any way comparable to saving lives and I don’t think that’s what Professor Brown was saying either. But his analogy helps understand the impact of working closely and consistently with traumatic content. In researching and curating the exhibition I found myself mediating a constant dialogue between past and present trauma. I did exactly as Prof Brown describes – I learnt to switch off my own emotional responses so that I could do the research, and then to switch them back on again to be able to empathise with the needs of survivors, families, visitors, stakeholders, and colleagues. I felt a deep sense of responsibility to do justice to the survivors’ experiences, alongside a commitment to our audiences to do so in a way that was sensitive to the traumatic power of these stories and didn’t upset people so much that they would simply walk away. 


Student looking at a digital display at Holocaust Centre North


Listening to that podcast prompted me to reflect on that period of my career and the impact it had. It was an intense and difficult time characterised by multiple pressures, particularly as curating the exhibition took place in the context of a demanding capital programme with the usual challenges of time, money, capacity and multiple stakeholders’ expectations and was only one aspect of my job. I was also dealing with the day-to-day challenges that form part of a senior leadership role in the context of this subject matter – leading a team of staff, worrying about the budget, negotiating with funders, working with counterterrorism advisers, blocking and reporting the antisemites and Holocaust deniers who occasionally targeted us on social media. 


Wellbeing support

This was five years ago and at that time I didn’t get any real support from my organisation. You don’t talk about this stuff in front of Holocaust survivors who actually lived it, or with their children, many of whom who have their own trauma from growing up surrounded by shadows. I began to feel that I didn't have the right to be upset by the content I was working with because I didn't have a direct personal relationship to it. We had resources to support our stakeholders and volunteers but no budget line for staff wellbeing. Instead I drew on a range of informal support – a mentor who helped with the leadership stuff, an informal network of colleagues in Holocaust organisations, and some really great friends.  But now, in retrospect, I know that wasn’t enough. I had periods when my mental health really suffered and I ended up with a deep sense of cynicism about human nature that has taken me a while to overcome. 


I haven’t written this to elicit sympathy. I am intensely proud of the exhibition we created at Holocaust Centre North. I don’t work in that job or directly in that field any more. I do still choose to work with sensitive histories – I've learnt a huge amount about how to work holistically with upsetting content, and I know how to manage my own wellbeing these days, so please get in touch if that’s something that interests you. I don’t blame my former employer: I don’t think my experience is unusual in a small charity with limited resources. I do think there has been a shift in awareness of workforce wellbeing since lockdown that owes much to the activists working in the sector, particularly people of colour who have highlighted the significant emotional labour that goes into decolonisation and anti-racism work and the disproportionate impact that this has on people who have lived with racism and discrimination their whole lives. However, I still don’t believe that the museum and heritage sector pays enough attention to the impact on people working with traumatic histories in the context of wider questions around workforce wellbeing (and when I say 'workforce' I mean everyone - not just employed staff but freelancers, artists, contractors and volunteers). 


So what needs to change? 

I'd like to think there’s been progress on this issue since my exhibition opened in 2017. I'm aware of conversations taking place in professional networks such as the War & Conflict SSN, run by the Imperial War Museum, and the Transatlantic Slavery and Legacies in Museums forum whose last workshop focused on ensuring safety when developing collaborative working practices. There are a lot more conversations in the sector about the importance of safeguarding mental health in collaborative working, often led by community engagement practitioners - the GLAM Cares network was initiated to facilitate such conversations and for mutual support, though to my knowledge it's not backed by any funding, and the Culture, Health and Wellbeing Alliance has resources on practitioner support and advocates developing a 'culture of care'. However these networks tend to focus on the practice of working with the arts and culture as a tool to support mental health rather than the content of historical subject matter and its power to cause distress.  


I think we need greater recognition that working with traumatic histories poses a mental health risk to the people who do it. This is particularly important now that so many museums are embarking on decolonisation programmes and are beginning to uncover previously under-researched stories relating to the British Empire, colonial histories and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The Museums Association's Supporting Decolonisation in Museums guidance specifically covers workforce wellbeing and offers practical guidance based on moving from the concept of 'duty of care' to an ethical commitment to workforce wellbeing. I hope this is also reflected in the MA's forthcoming review of its Code of Ethics because I see no reason why this guidance should only be applied to decolonisation work. While there are some topics that are inherently upsetting - the Holocaust and Transatlantic Slavery being obvious candidates - I'd suggest that pretty much any historical subject could be traumatic to work with depending on your relationship to the content and how you approach the research. I also wonder to what extent the initiatives recommended in guidance are actually being adopted by organisations and, critically, what resources are being put towards workforce wellbeing at a time when organisational budgets are increasingly squeezed. I’d also like to see mental health support routinely present on funders’ criteria for supporting any project that involves either working with traumatic histories or working collaboratively with potentially sensitive subject matter, by which I mean subjects that are disturbing in terms of their content and/or politically resonant for the present day. The kind of supervision that coaches and counsellors have as a routine part of their practice would be ideal. Recognition of mental health support also needs to be built into budgets and project timeframes: curating an exhibition is intense enough even when the subject you’re working with doesn’t contain a daily dose of atrocities. 


It's reassuring that the cultural sector has moved on from the days of vague, feelgood ‘wellbeing’ initiatives (anyone for a yoga class in your unpaid lunch break?) but it feels like we need a deeper conversation about the many-faceted subject of mental health for the museum workforce and what we, collectively, should be doing about it. 


I'd love to hear other people's experiences of this issue and find out what else is happening to address it. Join me for a chat over on Twitter or LinkedIn