Museums have long been places for people seeking refuge; just ask anyone who’s ever visited The Met on a rainy afternoon. For Brenda Cowan, however, exhibitions are far more than pleasant diversions. Cowan, associate professor of Exhibition and Experience Design, believes museum objects have healing properties. She co-authored a book on the subject, Museum Objects, Health and Healing: The Relationship between Exhibitions and Wellness (Routledge, 2019). Last year, she got a chance to study how her theory works with a group of Syrian refugees living in Sweden.
Since a civil war began in 2011, more than 100,000 Syrians have fled to Sweden. In 2018, the Museum of Mediterranean and Near Eastern Antiquities in Stockholm collaborated with some of them on an exhibition of objects they brought from home. One woman, who escaped on a raft that capsized, loaned a tube of lip-gloss that she’d stashed in a Ziploc bag. Another contributed an earring she secreted in her infant’s diaper. Curators juxtaposed these evocative mementoes with objects from the collection, and described them on labels rendered in Arabic, Swedish, and English. Syrian music played in the galleries, and a large space outfitted with low couches allowed visitors to gather and converse.
Cowan saw the show and was blown away by this exemplary model of community participation practice. In an article, she wrote that the exhibition created “a place and moment in time that would for many become the Syria they had left and lost.” She was already on the roster of what are called Fulbright Specialists—academics who receive funding to contribute expertise from their field in another country. With the grant, she returned to Sweden for three weeks last summer. Lusian Alasaaf, a Syrian cultural liaison, interpreter, and museum professional who is himself a refugee, helped Cowan conduct interviews with 25 people who loaned objects to the exhibition.
The subjects showed Cowan traditional Syrian hospitality, hugging her and sharing food and personal stories. Their warmth and generosity disrupted Cowan’s expectations, which were based on news images that portray Syria as a ruined, destitute place. “Their lives had been much like my own,” she later wrote. “In Syria, these people had been doctors or lawyers. They wanted to give back but they couldn’t,” so the exhibition gave them a chance to share, and be seen for who they are. One subject remarked that by loaning an object, “I could show that Syria is more than a war.”
Cowan says the study proved her theory of Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics. (Read more about the theory here.) Through the objects in the exhibition, she wrote, the museum and the Syrians showed “what the humanity that connects us looks like.”