Confronting Shadows: Mindful and Ethical Communication of Sensitive Content 

This blog post from Peter Tuka (University of Glasgow) summarizes the outcomes of the ‘Confronting Shadows: Mindful and Ethical Communication of Sensitive Content’ workshop that was held on 22nd November 2019 at St Mungo Museum of Religious Life and Art in Glasgow. The workshop was kindly supported by the Cohort Development Fund from SGSAH.

‘Confronting Shadows’ was organised by and for Arts and Humanities PhD students across Scotland whose research involves the study and communication of sensitive material. The workshop stemmed from the realisation that, despite the increased importance of public engagement within academia, there is currently little or no training for PhD students in mindful and ethical approaches to the study and communication of material that could potentially trigger or traumatise audiences or the students themselves. In response to this lack of training, the workshop provided a platform for reflection on sensitive, mindful and ethical ways of communicating such material. It also aimed to help increase participants’ confidence in presenting their research and tips on self-care. This was realised through discussion, interactive activities with objects from Glasgow Museums’ handling collection, and insights from a group of speakers from different disciplines who have a wealth of experience in working with sensitive topics and material.

The speakers were: Deborah Haase from The Scottish Jewish Archives; Tanaka Mhishi, a poet, playwright and teacher; Kate Mollison, a psychologist and psychotherapist; and Lisa Williams, The Director of the Edinburgh Caribbean Association. The chosen venue, St Mungo’s Museum of Religious Life and Art in Glasgow, echoed many of the themes and challenges around the discussion and display of sensitive material.

Here are some “Top Tips” and outcomes that emerged from the day:


Trauma is “sticky” 

Active engagement with sensitive topics, materials or people affected by traumatic experiences can affect our mental health and personal life. As Kate explained ‘trauma is sticky’, it can stick to us and result in so-called secondary, or vicarious trauma. It is important to recognise its first signs such as feelings of hopelessness associated with research, inability to relax, lack of motivation, irritability, or exhaustion. Kate used a metaphor of traffic lights, where each colour stands for a different stage of our mental health – green (we are productive and happy about our life and work), amber (we experience the first warning signs of fatigue or exhaustion) and red (we are in a threat mode and we might be unable to relax or feel positive about our life and work). These stages, of course, differ in each individual. It is important to recognise our limits and take action when we notice the first signs of amber. When we notice them, we should take a break, engage with our hobbies or things we enjoy, and try mindfulness or breathing exercises that can take us out of threat mode and anchor us in the present moment. If none of these help, we should not be afraid to seek peer or professional support.

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WW2 evacuation kit discussed as a part of the workshop (Objects from The Open Museum)

We cannot create a 100% safe space, but we can do our best

It is not possible to create a 100% safe space, particularly as in most cases we cannot know all the individuals in our audience and their needs or past experiences. We can, however, do our best to think carefully about our target audience and be mindful of the reason we have chosen to communicate this material. Being clear and honest about the content of our paper, presentation or workshop is the key, as this gives our audience the opportunity to make a conscious decision whether they want to see, read or hear it. Giving a content warning is a good practice, but a generic statement such as, “this presentation/paper contains sensitive material, please feel free to leave the room if you feel uncomfortable” is not enough.

Be prepared and have measures in place for a situation when someone is triggered. Some examples include:

  Slow the conversation down.

  If you organise an event, designate a quiet safe space for those who feel overwhelmed.

  Be an ‘active listener’ (or have ‘active listeners’ in place if you organise a larger event), attend the triggered person, ask them what happened, listen and be compassionate. Kate suggests asking the following questions (don’t assume what they need):

  • Is there anyone you can or want to talk to?
  • What can help you? What usually helps you? How can I help you?
  • What are you able to do to help yourself?
  • What would you like me to do?

Remember: Take care of yourself by setting boundaries between your research and private life and recognising your needs. As Tanaka said, ‘If you can’t anticipate your own needs then you are fundamentally unfit to anticipate the needs of others.’

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Objects linked with slavery discussed during the workshop (Riverside Museum handling collection)

Don’t be afraid to work with sensitive topics 

It is important to keep unpicking the discomforts of past and present atrocities. Avoiding this because we do not feel capable or confident enough risks ‘silencing’ that history. If you are unsure about something, don’t be afraid to team up with others, ask questions and keep improving your skills and knowledge.

Don’t be alone – build connections and create a culture of care

It is not always easy to discuss research with our families and friends, especially when it contains sensitive content. However, it is important to talk about the challenges, feelings or insecurities that might occur. Make sure you are not alone with your research – it is beneficial to join a support group, where you can exchange experiences and tips, or seek advice. One of the aims of ‘Confronting Shadows’ workshop was to create such platform – if you would like to take part or learn more, follow us on Twitter @conf_shadows or email

About the organisers:

Jana Jankuliaková is a second year PhD student in Art History at the University of Glasgow researching depiction of male bodies affected by war related psychological and physical trauma in the works of German Expressionist artists (1914-1918)

Peter Tuka is a second year PhD student in History of Art at the University of Glasgow. His research concerns 20th century art from former Czechoslovakia that reflects traumatic experience of individuals living under totalitarian regimes of Nazism and Communism.

Kirsty Haslam is a second year PhD candidate at the University of Aberdeen. Her work looks at the social and cultural impact of warfare in late medieval and early modern Aberdeen and Aberdeenshire.

Linsey McMillan is a second year PhD student in History at the University of Edinburgh. She studies medicine and slavery in the British Caribbean, focusing on the enslaved experience.

Kiefer Holland is a second-year PhD student at the University of Edinburgh. His research area is nineteenth-century African American women’s writing and speeches.

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