Museums and Spontaneous Memorials. A Museology of Trauma

Project Details


Spontaneous memorials are grassroots mourning practices that appear after tragic events, such as terrorist attacks and natural disasters. They are not a new phenomenon and have appeared after events such as the Hillsborough Disaster (1989) and 9/11 (2001), more recent terror attacks in Paris (2015), Manchester (2017), and Christchurch (2019), as well as the Seoul Halloween crowd crush (2022). These and similar events have led to the formation of large-scale, public spontaneous memorials, consisting often of thousands of flowers, candles, notes, flags, t-shirts, religious items and other objects. Such memorials have now become an expected expression of public and ritualised grief and memorialisation. They are temporary and in most cases are collected by museums and related cultural organisations. However, the emotive nature of these memorials, and the impossibility of predicting their occurrence, means that museum staff are faced with challenges of urgent collecting and documentation, and the dangers of vicarious and secondary trauma, which fall outside their usual collection management frameworks.

This project will provide a comprehensive, international study of the conceptual, practical, and ethical issues that the collection, documentation and curation of spontaneous memorials after traumatic events present to museums and other cultural and heritage organisations. Through an innovative theoretical framework and research methodology driven by "ethics of care" and "trauma-informed practice", the participation of cultural professionals and organisations from around the world, and a strategic partnership with The International Federation of the Red Cross and Red Crescent Reference Centre for Psychosocial Support, the project will establish the new research field of Trauma Museology.

This scholarly, theoretical work will feed directly into the collaborative development of sectoral-leading resources and guidance that will support cultural professionals and organisations facing the challenges of forming and managing collections of trauma. This will meet the growing need locally, nationally, and internationally to foster a contextualised, sustainable, and empathetic cultural policy and practice in: a. collecting, documenting and curating spontaneous memorials that consider the sensitivities and needs of different stakeholders (including families of the bereaved, survivors, and the wider public); and b. supporting and safeguarding cultural professionals dealing with such traumatic collections against the risks of secondary and vicarious trauma. In this way, the project will also lead to changes in relevant policy and practice nationally and internationally by informing the strategies of cultural and civic authorities in the aftermath of large-scale traumatic events.

The growing frequency of spontaneous memorialisation around the world, the role of museums in constructing personal and collective memories of the associated events, and the challenges these spontaneous memorials pose to museum research and practice make this study internationally relevant and timely. The project consolidates and extends the scope and reach of the PI's research and, as the first study of spontaneous memorials that draws on (and contributes to) the fields of museology, heritage studies, memory studies, disaster studies, and health and wellbeing, it offers an example of cross and interdisciplinary scholarship that can inform future research at the intersection of those fields. Outputs will include monograph chapters and articles in both academic and professional journals. Sectoral engagement will include an international symposium, an authoritative interactive web resource and a feasibility plan for a global network of experts to support cultural stakeholders confronted with the sudden need to manage spontaneous memorials.
AcronymArvanitis AHRC:RDEF
Effective start/end date1/02/2431/07/25


  • spontaneous memorials
  • collecting
  • ethics of care
  • trauma-informed practice
  • museology
  • trauma
  • collective memory
  • memorialisation
  • terrorist attacks

Research Beacons, Institutes and Platforms

  • Creative Manchester


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