Resilience in the museum

Last Friday, a memorable visit to the Anacostia Community Museum got me thinking about museums and resilience.

I went to the Museum to attend a program facilitated by Move This World, a nonprofit organization that uses movement and the arts to empower communities.

Before the facilitator arrived, I took a look through the Museum’s two temporary exhibitions: Ubuhle Women: Beadwork and the Art of Independence and Home Sewn: Quilts from the Lower Mississippi Valley. (The Move This World (for women) program promised to build on the themes of self-esteem and empowerment explored in the Ubuhle exhibition.)

The heroic creator

The Ubuhle exhibition was one of the most beautiful and awe-inspiring things I have seen in a long time.

The exhibition features remarkable canvas-like works of colored glass beads created by the Ubuhle community, a group of female artists working in rural South Africa. The works are called ndwangos. (See exhibition description).

I could have spent several hours just enjoying being in this space (the Ubuhle exhibition).

I could have spent several hours just enjoying being in this space (the Ubuhle exhibition).

I spent forty-five quiet, restorative minutes poring over these luminous works. As I read the associated stories, experiences, and aspirations of the artists, I came to appreciate the complexity of the lives and careers of each ndwango.

In one sense, the works are a means of economic independence for the artists and a vehicle for sharing their skills. In another, they are deep repositories of emotion, experience, and family life. According to one panel, the creative process may be used to work through grief and preserve memory when a loved one is lost (See panel titled ‘Remembering those lost’).

In essence, all creative expression represents the resilience and survival of the creator. Through artworks and their creators’ stories, we see imagination and creativity, skill and innovation, and courage in sharing one’s ideas with the world.

The second temporary exhibition, Home Sewn: Quilts from the Lower Mississippi Valley, seemed also to speak to the idea of art and creation as a symbol of endurance, adaptation, and human ingenuity. The exhibition explores an evolving, but ever-important quilting tradition in rural Mississippi.

The fieldwork shown in this exhibition is beautifully and empathetically conceived, and conveys the many ways that this quilting tradition absorbs and invigorates, and connects to community.

Again, I was given privileged insight into the forces that move and inspire others. Is this not one of the great joys of visiting a museum?

The heroic visitor

The Move This World (for women) program turned out to be a fitting way for me to process these exhibits and my emerging ideas about museums and resilience. It was a small group so instead of focusing on movement, we had an open discussion about the roles that we take on as women and the risks and rewards that we face as a result.

We discussed times when we have felt both empowered and disempowered, and we explored some of the thought processes surrounding these experiences while celebrating our efforts to persevere.

The experience was underpinned by a supportive atmosphere of esteem and respect. Much of the credit for this safe environment belongs to the facilitator from Move This World who generously shared her own spirit and humor to make the program successful.

I was touched when, at the end of the program, another participant gave me her phone number, inviting me to contact her if I needed help settling into D.C. So I left the museum both a little more confident and empowered, and with a new friend.

Is there a place for counseling approaches in the museum?

Yes, I think so.

The late social worker and researcher, Dennis Saleebey, stated: ‘All humans possess the urge to be heroic; to transcend their condition, to develop their powers, to overcome adversity’ (Saleebey, 2008, p. 123).

All museums, in some way, allude to everyday heroic acts by hinting at the many ways we survive, move forward, innovate and adapt. (Art museums? Yes. History museums? Yes. Science museums? Absolutely.)

Saleebey, who was a strong proponent of focusing on clients’ strengths (rather than their problems), explained that social workers should implore clients to imagine ‘what a dream fulfilled would feel, taste, smell, and look like’ (Saleebey, 2000, p. 135).

Maybe museums can help in this imagining process…?

Public programs that embrace a counseling/empowerment approach may be one avenue for extending and personalizing our experience of human heroism and resilience in the museum.

These programs might be made possible through partnerships and collaborations with social service organizations or with the help of likeminded nonprofits such as Move This World.

… So, if you find yourself in need of a little reassurance or connection, why not spend an afternoon in your favorite local museum? Take the time to recognize all that you already do (every day) that is strong and courageous, and then allow yourself to be inspired by the courageous acts of others.


Reference List

Saleebey, D. (2000). Power in the people: Strengths and hope. Advances in Social Work, 1(2), 127-136. Retrieved from

Saleebey, D. (2008). The strengths perspective: Putting possibility and hope to work in our practice. In K. M. Sowers, & C. N. Dulmus (Series Eds.), & B. W. White (Vol. Ed.), Comprehensive handbook of social work and social welfare, volume 1: The profession of social work (pp. 123-142). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.