A group of men contemplating a 9/11 display

Trauma-Based Knowledge Work

In order to fulfill its mission, the National Museum of American History sometimes shares histories that can be challenging and traumatic, such as the tragic events of September 11, 2001. Exploring these moments is an important part of the museum's work to examine the complexities of the past.   

See our 2020-2030 Strategic Plan (PDF)

The Museum of American History collaborates with The Institute for Disaster Mental Health (IDMH) at the State University of New York, New Paltz, to provide essential expertise and training to support the well-being of museum staff.

Project History

The collaboration with IDMH began before the 20th anniversary of the September 11 attacks to support the museum’s project team with mental health-informed training during their work with this traumatic content. The collaboration has continued and now extends to staff and teams across the museum that work on a wide variety of challenging topics. 

Trauma-based Knowledge Work 

We define Knowledge Work as any activity in which an individual or team works to develop an educational, programmatic, exhibition, or other related effort. Knowledge work and museum work are not inherently traumatic; however, working in museums and other cultural institutions can involve challenging content and activities that can be traumatic.

Professionals across all disciplines contend with distinct sets of stressors. Museums, as workplaces, are no exception; yet, what distinguishes the museum sector is the breadth of topics and challenges, spanning historical and contemporary realms. Through collaboration with IDMH, the museum explored its work through a mental health lens, gaining insights into secondary trauma stress or vicarious trauma exposure concepts. This understanding has been particularly relevant to museum tasks associated with traumatic events, such as the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Working with IDMH, we coined the term 'Trauma-Based Knowledge Work' to encapsulate this facet of museum engagement — any endeavor potentially exposing individuals to emotional, physical, or psychological challenges connected to their professional work.  

Trauma-Based Knowledge Work builds on IDMH’s deep understanding of the many ways people can be exposed to challenging material, the range of reactions they can experience in response to that exposure, and the diverse coping strategies – productive and problematic – they can choose to employ. Exposure for individuals and teams can be acute, related to a specific encounter, or chronic and cumulative due to repeated exposure to challenging content throughout one's career.


To support museums and the cultural community in Trauma-Based Knowledge Work, we encourage the following considerations, practices, and resources to be developed: 

  • Identify resources already available to staff, such as employee assistance programs, and ensure that each member of the organization and team has that information. Many museums also have help available to them outside their organizations through area mental health and wellness providers.

  • Before beginning a project, identify the process and procedures for what the project team will do when exposed to challenging and traumatic situations.    

  • Identify a procedural checklist for each project and activity. Add mental health, team check-ins, and share-outs as part of the practice so that discussing challenging situations and complex content becomes the norm. 

  • Per each project, outline the process and steps required and review the organization's goals and efforts to establish best practices for each action.

  • IDMH offers free videos and other helpful tools, which you can find here.

Supporting our visitors 

Together, the collaboration produced the following language that the museum is using on signs and labels throughout the museum today. This copy was designed to support visitors in the museum by offering some techniques to re-center if they’re overwhelmed by any particular content.   

Are you feeling overwhelmed? 
 Te sientes abrumado/a?

Reconnect with your body 

Try Progressive Muscle Relaxation. Tense the muscles in your feet as much as possible for five seconds, then release. For ten seconds, focus on how those now-relaxed muscles feel. Repeat the process for progressively higher parts of your body—tensing for five and relaxing/focusing for ten.    

Reconecta con tu cuerpo

Intenta la relajación progresiva de tus músculos. Tensiona los músculos de tus pies tanto como puedas durante cinco segundos, luego relájalos. Durante diez segundos concéntrate en sentir los músculos de tus pies relajados. Repite este proceso progresivamente en las partes hacia arriba de tu cuerpo. Tensionando durante cinco y luego relajando y concentrando durante diez.  

Re-center yourself  

Try Box Breathing. Breathe in four steps, imagining that you are working your way around four sides of a box or square: 1) breathe in slowly for four seconds, 2) hold your breath for four seconds, 3) exhale slowly for four seconds, 4) wait four seconds before breathing in again. 


Intenta la respiración cuadrada en cuatro pasos, imaginando que estas recorriendo cada lado de un cuadrado: 1) inhalar lentamente en cuatro segundos, 2) mantén la respiración durante cuatro segundos, 3) exhala lentamente en cuatro segundos, 4) espera cuatro segundos antes de inhalar otra vez.  

Reframe your thinking  

Try Active Thinking. What’s that little voice in your head saying about the situation, or how are you responding to it? Once you notice these thoughts, adjust your self-talk to be more precise and supportive.  

Replantea tu forma de pensar  

Intenta el pensamiento activo. ¿Qué es lo que te está diciendo esa pequeña voz acerca de la situación, o cómo estas respondiéndole? Una vez que notas estos pensamientos, ajusta tu voz interior mas precisamente y con mayor apoyo.   

Developed by NMAH and the Institute for Disaster Mental Health at SUNY New Paltz. 

Desarrollado por el National Museum of American History y el Institute for Disaster Mental Health en SUNY New Paltz.

What's next? 

We hope to release additional information on Trauma-based Knowledge Work to support museums, libraries, and other cultural institutions.

We also welcome your input. We're eager to gather insights from fellow museums and professionals in the field regarding the tools and resources they've found effective in supporting their teams. Feel free to reach out to us via email at NMAHtraumaproject@si.edu

Project Team

  • Adam Rozan, National Museum of American History      

  • Danielle Hodes, M.A., Research Associate, National Museum of American History, former Senior Program Manager at the National Museum of American History, current Executive Director, Davenport House Museum     

  • Amy Nitza, Ph.D., LMHC, Executive Director, Institute for Disaster Mental Health, Research Associate, National Museum of American History 

  • Karla Vermeulen, Ph.D., Deputy Director, Institute for Disaster Mental Health, Research Associate, National Museum of American History