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Background and Origin

Field Journal, Brenda Cowan

Observing Alpha Group, Blue Ridge Mountains, July 5th 2015

Nothing about these adolescents is common, other then their desires to be so. Some are survivors of tragedies and still bear the marks. Some have been driven to achieve to the point where the only road left is the one they will have to make themselves. Some are simply lost, wondering where they had left the path, or if it was the path that had left them. All are leaders learning how to be among other leaders, all are learning that common is only an idea, all are learning that the world is often beyond our control, and all are learning that they have a strength all their own that can’t be taken away if they don’t let it. 

A Theory about how museum objects help us heal and be well began in an unexpected place: a wilderness therapy setting in the Blue Ridge Mountains.


The theory of Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics was created by Professor Brenda Cowan in July 2015, in concert with field research conducted with clinical therapists, field therapists and the therapeutic curriculum of Trails Carolina, a wilderness therapeutic facility in North Carolina. Her initial premise that the human-object relationship is inherent and directly linked to wellbeing and psychological healing, emerged from literature and practice related to studies in self and identity, unified experience, phenomenology,  wellbeing in museum and heritage settings, object-based therapies, and object-based meaning-making in museums. Grounding her study in the body of scholarship defining phenomenological experience and the evocative characteristics of objects; the role of objects in the construction of meaning; and the subjective associations that shape those meanings, she examined the psychological underpinnings of the human-object relationship. Its purpose in our lives.


Converging the disciplines of museum and object studies, phenomenology, psychology and psychotherapy, she followed the premise that people have an innate and necessary relationship with objects that she calls “primal dialogue,” that is essential to personal meaning making and to an individual’s psychological health. Determined that object-based therapy would be an appropriate and unique arena for study, she initiated her research via interviews with clinical therapists, field managers, and the clinical director at Trails Carolina, an adolescent therapeutic wilderness program in North Carolina. This initial study also included an interview in Vancouver, British Columbia with Ross Laird, a psychotherapist and expert in the making of objects in therapeutic practice. The therapeutic work with objects at the venues she selected  correlates with research in the roles and interpretation of objects in museum exhibitions, as well as objects in relation to sociocultural identification, self-identification, power, and humanity. The primary research findings resulted in a new theory of Psychotherapeutic Object Dynamics that illustrates how objects are inherent to an individual’s wellbeing and psychological health. Phase I research documentation can be accessed at:


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