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Medical museum features mask-making arts therapy exhibit

Masks made by patients at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center are seen on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, a division of the Defense Health Agency Research and Development Directorate, in an exhibit titled "Visual Voices of the Invisible Wounds of War." The exhibit is on display through May 31, 2019. (Department of Defense photo by Matthew Breitbart) Masks made by patients at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center are seen on display at the National Museum of Health and Medicine, a division of the Defense Health Agency Research and Development Directorate, in an exhibit titled "Visual Voices of the Invisible Wounds of War." The exhibit is on display through May 31, 2019. (Department of Defense photo by Amanda Quinn)

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The National Museum of Health and Medicine, in Silver Spring, Maryland, in collaboration with the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, recently opened “Visual Voices of the Invisible Wounds of War,” an exhibit about art therapy by patients impacted by traumatic brain injury and associated health conditions. Centering on mask-making, a clinical art therapy directive, the exhibit explores the psychosocial environment of patients with TBI and how producing masks that express their emotional state can help them reach a positive understanding of their identity. The exhibit opened on March 8 in conjunction with the Department of Defense’s observance of Brain Injury Awareness Month. The exhibit will close on May 31, 2019.

TBI is a complex brain dysfunction that usually results from a violent jolt to the head. At the NICoE, doctors, researchers, and therapists work in a collaborative clinical setting with families, caregivers, and referring providers to help service members manage TBI symptoms and psychological health. The NICoE is the pilot location of Creative Forces: NEA Military Healing Arts Network, a partnership with the National Endowment of the Arts and the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs. Art therapy sessions at the NICoE focus on improving patients’ quality of life through the creative arts therapies.

This papier-mâché mask decorated with barbed wire, ceramic tiles, bullet casings, and an American flag is titled “Breaking Through the Pain.” It was made by a patient in the Creative Arts Therapy Program at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. It is displayed as part of the National Museum of Health and Medicine’s “Visual Voices of the Invisible Wounds of War” exhibit which runs through May 31. (Disclosure: This image has been cropped to emphasize the subject.) (Department of Defense photo by Matthew Breitbart)
This papier-mâché mask decorated with barbed wire, ceramic tiles, bullet casings, and an American flag is titled “Breaking Through the Pain.” It was made by a patient in the Creative Arts Therapy Program at the National Intrepid Center of Excellence at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. (Department of Defense photo by Matthew Breitbart)

Melissa Walker, healing arts program coordinator at the NICoE, emphasized that art therapy gives service members the opportunity to open up about their experiences and injuries.

“They’ve created something that’s very meaningful…it could be a memorial, it could be a memory…sometimes it’s symbols of who they are in the military, a character, or a nickname,” Walker said. As a therapeutic process, these symbols help the service members come to terms with their trauma and to understand their identity.

The art therapy treatment at the NICoE can also provide a type of therapy to the families, conveying sentiments that are otherwise difficult for the patient to communicate. “We’ve seen art therapy products be talking pieces for them. We’ve seen a lot of families look at the product and say ‘oh, I’ve never completely understood before, but now I can see,’” says Walker.

One of the directives used in art therapy at the NICoE is decorating papier-mâché masks, which are the focal point of the exhibit. Each mask includes a description provided by the patient. The mask titled “Breaking Through the Pain,” part one of a two-part series, is designed with barbed wire, a painted flag and wall, and a bullet. The service member who crafted the mask notes that he wanted to capture the turmoil and conflict in his head, his sense of selfless service, his breakthroughs from his silence and self-guilt, and an actual event where he was shot in the face. It’s a visual vocalization of his trauma and shared identity.

“Hosting the masks provides a temporary home for these deeply personal expressions,” said Adrianne Noe, Ph.D., director of the NMHM. “We ask our visitors to consider them not merely as mute art objects, but as clear images of the healing process, or the challenges of contending with life-altering experiences.”

NMHM’s exhibits provide forums for conversation that connect the mission of military medicine with the public. NMHM was established during the Civil War, as the Army Medical Museum, and is a division of the Defense Health Agency Research and Development Directorate. For more information about upcoming events, call (301) 319-3303 or visit the NMHM website.

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