Psyche and Soma at Takoma

I have lived near the Takoma Metro for a decade, so there is not much about the area that surprises me. It doesn’t surprise me anytime a new Little Free Library, or a new place to get vegan cheesecake, or a new piece of quirky yard art appears.

It did not surprise me one year ago when several such pieces of quirky yard art, as well as the statue of Roscoe the beloved rooster, donned pink pussyhats. Someone posted on social media that they expected all of Takoma Park to be present at the Women’s March. I wouldn’t be surprised if that prediction came true.

The Busboys and Poets that opened in 2015 was no surprise; I’d long felt that it would be a perfect fit for Takoma. None of the yard signs are surprising – not the ones that read “Science Is Real” or “We’re Glad You’re Our Neighbor” or even “Just Say No to Yard Signs.”

But life still has its surprises, even in Takoma Park and the Takoma, DC neighborhood. When I first visited the National Museum of Health and Medicine (then located about one mile from the Takoma Metro, and currently located about one mile from the Forest Glen Metro), I was expecting curiosities and Gross Things. I was surprised by the variety of exhibits in the museum as a whole and the poignancy of one exhibit in particular.

I had heard about the hairball collection and the bullet that killed President Lincoln. In addition to these objects, there was an exhibit of microscopes, an installation showing what a trauma bay in Baghdad looks like, and a traveling art exhibition called Wounded in Action featuring artists whose lives had been touched by amputation due to war injuries.

The artists were either themselves members of the armed forces who had lost a limb, family members, or doctors who treated such patients. One piece that was particularly memorable for me was Hands on Freedom by Marty Martinez, showing an American flag being held at its four corners by two hands, one hook, and one prosthetic. Another work, Patience by John Ton (shown on the wall in the photo below), uses spent ammunition cases to depict a human figure walking with a cane.

Wounded in Action exhibit at the former location of the National Museum of Health and Medicine

Wounded in Action exhibit at the former location of the National Museum of Health and Medicine

I have since visited NMHM in its new location. Although Wounded in Action is no longer on display, the themes of illness and injury in the military are still present in the museum’s content and programs. Today, the museum is hosting another art exhibit, this time of art made in an art therapy program by a wounded warrior. The museum has held talks for the public on topics like PTSD and how different therapeutic tools (from art to therapy dogs) can help.

Mental (psyche) and physical (soma) trauma are ever-present risks in combat, yet stigma persists, especially in relation to challenges to psychological well-being. Is it any surprise that stigma continues, despite all the advances the field of medicine has made in understanding and treating PTSD and other mental illnesses, among troops as well as civilians? No, it doesn’t surprise me – not when anyone with any kind of special need is labeled a snowflake. Not when a man can say “I like people who weren’t captured” in reference to a POW, insult a Gold Star family, mock a disabled reporter, fire someone for being “crazy” despite laws against such discrimination, and still – to everyone’s surprise – be elected president.

Mural at the current location of the National Museum of Health and Medicine

Mural at the current location of the National Museum of Health and Medicine

Nor should there be any surprise, in this climate, any time someone chooses not to share their struggles with trauma or mental illness, to keep such struggles bottled up.

According to art therapist Melissa Walker, who spoke at NMHM in 2016, one of the benefits of art therapy is that “We see their affects change, as well as their ability to be open with their providers, families, and each other” – that is, improving not only the condition itself but also the ability to open up about the condition. Some of the masks that service members made as part of the therapy program with Walker were on exhibit at the museum at the time.

At the former location of NMHM, I took a photo of a quote on the wall from Calvin Coolidge (the 30th president of the United States, who died on this day in 1933): “The nation which forgets its defenders will be itself forgotten.” Though the museum has moved from DC to Maryland, from near Takoma to near Forest Glen, there is (unsurprising) continuity in the themes and content, including exhibits that reflect this quote by highlighting the uphill healing process faced by service members after injury and trauma.

Takoma is on the Red Line.


About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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