Exploring psychology’s colorful past, with Cathy Faye, PhD

Laveta Brigham

Kim Mills: While most of us are just trying to make it through 2020 historians and archivists are already thinking about what this era will look like in the rear view mirror. Historians of psychology are no exception. At the Cummings Center for the History of Psychology in Akron, Ohio researchers […]

Kim Mills: While most of us are just trying to make it through 2020 historians and archivists are already thinking about what this era will look like in the rear view mirror. Historians of psychology are no exception. At the Cummings Center for the History of Psychology in Akron, Ohio researchers curate a trove of materials that document more than a century of the discipline’s history including photos, films, the personal papers of hundreds of eminent psychologists and even artifacts from some of the famous experiments you probably learned about if you took Psych 101.

Right now, they’re also thinking about how to preserve a record of our current times for future generations. Part of the Cummings Center is the National Museum of Psychology. Perhaps it never occurred to you that there even is such a place. And although it is close to the public right now because of the COVID pandemic it’s work continues and some of its exhibits are online.

Welcome to Speaking of Psychology, the flagship podcast of the American Psychological Association that explores the connections between psychological science and everyday life. I’m Kim Mills. Our guest today is Dr. Cathy Faye a historian of psychology and director of the Cummings Center. She’s here to tell us more about the center’s collections, its public museum, and the work that she and the other staff are doing to preserve psychology’s past even as they are documenting its present. Welcome to Speaking of Psychology Dr. Faye.

Cathy Faye, PhD: Thanks for having me.

Mills: As I said, you’re a historian of psychology but right now one of your projects is very much focused on the present. You’re working to document the changes that’s psychology and psychologists are going through in 2020. Can you tell our listeners what prompted you to start this project, what you’re doing and how it fits in with the center’s mission?

Faye: Yeah, definitely. It’s hard to continue to do historical work when you recognize that the moment you’re living in right now really is a project for historians. And so rather than focusing my attention on the past right now like everybody else I’ve been just so absorbed with all the changes that have happened for all of us in the present in 2020. So as I thought about that I really began to think about all the changes that were happening in psychology and how we as historians of psychology might capture those changes.

So for example, for the first time ever the American Psychological Association’s convention was moved online, that’s never happened before. Psychologists everywhere have scrambled but also done a really fantastic job of moving things like therapy and counseling online. There’s been such an increase in demand for psychological services through the pandemic and being inside of the discipline I just am watching psychologists rise to the occasion in ways that are just really unique and historic and things that we’d never had to face before.

So, part of the impetus for this was really just seeing all the changes that were happening so quickly and recognizing as a historian that this is going to be an important moment in psychology. And if we don’t have the materials necessary to tell this story I think it would be a significant loss for the field. So that was the first impetus.

Mills: I was going to say what are some of the items that you’re collecting then to document this time?

Faye: Sure. So there’s the central thing I’m doing right now is interviewing psychologists. So, I’m looking for a diverse array of psychologists who are working inside of this pandemic in various kinds of ways and also living in it as people not just as psychologists. They’re also living their regular lives. So I’m talking to these psychologists and using just the regular conferencing software that we’ve all gotten so comfortable with, Zoom and things like this. We’re using that software to record our conversations and those conversations will become part of the historical record of psychology.

And we’re really just focusing on a set of questions that ask them how psychology has changed during 2020 as both a result of the pandemic but also as a result of the police brutality conversations that have been happening. I mean, I think that psychology has really changed in responding to that crisis as well. So we just sit down and we have a conversation about this and I ask them how their field of psychology has changed because of these things. And I also talk to them as people so I ask them how they’re doing through the pandemic and through this crisis around social justice. And there’s been some really wonderful conversations that have come out of it. And I really feel like a hundred years from now historians are going to have a lot to work with because of it.

Mills: Are people eager or reluctant to participate in these interviews?

Faye: I think both. I think people are interested but I think that one of the things that’s interesting is that many people have said to me, “Oh, well, I’m not that important.” They don’t think that their voice is not important enough to be part of the historical record of psychology. And my response to that is always, “Every single voice has a different story to tell.” So, a student who, an undergraduate student in psychology who is just starting to work in this online world, graduate students who are trying to begin their counseling or clinical psychology careers in this environment, all the way up to the president of the American Psychological Association, every one of those voices tells an important piece of the story for history. So, this is what I keep trying to remind people as they’re reluctance seems to be centered on the idea that their voice is not as important as somebody else’s. So once we get past that, once I can convince people that they really do have important things to say around all of this and their own personal experience is very important then they’re excited.

Mills: What kind of stories are you getting now?

Faye: Some of them are stories, for example I spoke with a psychologist last week from Lebanon who told me a lot about how they have had to shift the way in which they’re training psychologists because there’s such a high demand for mental health care in Lebanon because of the pandemic as well as several other events that have occurred in Lebanon.

Mills: Sure. They had that huge explosion that really impacted the Lebanese.

Faye: Exactly. We talked a lot about the warehouse explosion and how the increase in demand both for those who are grieving as well as those who were just near the blast when it happened. So, there was a lot of demand for mental health care along with the pandemic and the economic crisis that is going on as well. And so, they’ve had to really think on their feet and start to train students to be providers. And this will lead to probably permanent changes in the way that they deliver mental healthcare services and the way that they train students.

So, these professional kinds of stories are really important and they’re international so we can start to get a sense of what’s happening around the globe. But there’s also the personal stories are really interesting to me as well. So I spoke with one psychologist who talked to me about she’s an African-American woman and we were talking about the killing of George Floyd and all of the things that have happened around that. And she talked to me about what it’s like to raise a young black son in this environment and what it’s like to talk with him and walk with him as protests go on all around her and her neighborhood and all of these kinds of things. So, those stories are also I think really, really important and interesting.

Mills: Yeah and those are stories that really any black mother can probably tell you, not just a psychologist, although you’d get a slightly different perspective I would think.

Faye: Yeah I actually, I think maybe you get a little bit of a different perspective but I think at the end of the day it’s one of the things that I love about this project is that we see psychologists as psychologists but we also get to see them as people trying to make their way through what has been for everybody a really difficult year.

Mills: Do you have an end point in mind? We have no idea when this whole craziness around the pandemic will stop so do you just keep going until somebody says the emergency has passed and we have a vaccine?

Faye: That’s an excellent question. I don’t have an end point. I arbitrarily have said I’ll continue to collect interviews until the end of the year only because at some point I have to move on to other projects as we all do. But really it’s one of these things that it’s a prototype I want to keep using because I set it up as a citizen science project. So, I’m not the only one doing the interviews. Once I interview somebody I give them the question set and I encourage them to think of somebody who might be a good voice for this project. So that might be one of their mentors, it might be somebody that they knew earlier in their career and then they can basically serve as the interviewer and collect interviews as well. And I like that because then I’m not the one deciding whose voice is important, everybody gets to make those choices which I think is a really unique part of this project.

Mills: Yeah it sounds a little like the StoryCorps model which can be extremely interesting and they’re just regular people telling stories about each other.

Faye: Yeah. I hadn’t thought of it but yeah and it is very much like StoryCorps in that it’s not it’s not a full oral history interview the way that a historian would normally do because we simply don’t have the time to gather as many stories as we would if we were doing full interviews. So, the goal really is breadth rather than depth but I’ve been surprised that even in a short 20 minute discussion we get pretty deep which is really wonderful.

Mills: Let’s talk about the center itself for a few minutes. As I said earlier, it encompasses an archive and a museum. Can you give an overview, tell a little bit about each and how they’re different and the same?

Faye: Sure. Yeah. So the Center for the History of Psychology we’ve been around since 1965 and we are basically a research institution that collects, cares for and shares the historical record of psychology. I think we are really the only archives museum in the world that has a collection quite this large and that devotes itself pretty much solely to collecting a historical record of psychology. So, for those who haven’t visited an archive the kinds of things you’re going to find there are correspondence so letters between psychologists, personal diaries, meeting minutes from committee meetings. Anything that isn’t published that you could find in a library that’s what you’re going to find in our collections.

So for example, many people are familiar with Abraham Maslow and the hierarchy of needs. One of the things we have in our collection is Abraham Maslow’s personal diaries from the time he was quite young. So something you’re not going to find in a library you’re only going to find in our archives. So our central function really is as the archives we collect and preserve the historical record of psychology. But as we grew and developed we discovered that the public was very interested in all of the materials that we held in the archives and we’d find ourselves touring people through the space. So in 2018, we launched a public museum and this is the National Museum of Psychology where we share our collections with the public.

Mills: What are some of the most famous and infamous objects that we might see if we go to the museum?

Faye: So probably our most famous objects in the museum are the materials from the Stanford Prison Experiment. The very famous study in the 1960s where college students were assigned roles of guards and prisoners and then their behavior was observed over the course of a few days. And this is a study that many people are familiar with so we have the original prison door from that study, the guard uniform, the prisoner uniforms. We also have the other famous object in our collections is the simulated shock generator from Stanley Milgram’s studies of obedience. Another study that many people are familiar with that looked at why we obey people who are in positions of authority. So, these are probably our two most popular items.

My favorite item in our collections is something called a psychograph. And this is a machine that was based on an old pseudoscience called phrenology. Phrenology was based on the notion that you could feel the bumps on someone’s head and using the contours of the skull you could read their personality. And phonology was very, very popular in the early, throughout the 1800s and even around the turn of the century in the United States. These traveling phrenologists would go around the country and you’d give them a small fee and they would read your head and they’d use that reading to tell you what you should become, should you be a doctor, should you be a lawyer, so on and so forth. So the psychograph a couple of brothers in the 1930s decided to make more money off of phrenology and they created basically an automated phrenology machine. So you could put some money into the machine. You sit down on a chair, a little bucket comes down over your head, it reads your head and provides a printout of your personality and some career guidance.

Mills: Does it still function? Have you used it?

Faye: It does still completely function. We think there’s only about seven of them left in the world because most of them were destroyed in a warehouse fire. So, it does still completely work. We don’t use it anymore because they’re so rare so we don’t usually operate it. But yeah, it still works and it’s on display in the museum.

Mills: It sounds like something from a sideshow where you put your money in and you get a little slip with your fortune.

Faye: Yeah. That’s funny you say it, it was actually featured once on the David Letterman show.

Mills: What are the things that visitors seem most interested in?

Faye: Yeah, it’s been wonderful to see how much the public enjoys the museum. And I think they’re so interested in it and in psychology because psychology tells us so much about ourselves and our world. And sometimes we don’t even realize it but psychology is around us every single day in the products we buy, in the technology we use, psychological work went into all of that. And it’s interesting, I think the public enjoys learning about that, the way that their world has been shaped by psychology. So for example, we have an exhibit that explores how the modern design of your cell phone keypad was actually created by a psychologist.

Mills: Of course.

Faye: So, yeah and this happened way back in the 1950s. So, a psychologist was hired by the Bell Telephone Company to try to… At this point telephone calls were all directed by telephone operators and they needed to do it quickly. So, Bell hired a psychologist to figure out which number pad layout would lead to the least amount of errors and would allow telephone operators to relay those calls as quickly as possible. So, if you look at your number pad on your cell phone today that’s the number pad that psychologists determined in the 1950s actually led to the least amount of errors. So, you can thank a psychologist for your ease of using the number keypad on your cell phone. So I think that the public is really interested in these kinds of stories where now they can go back out into their world and see all these things that they use and engage with every day and see how psychological work went into that.

Mills: Yeah we like to talk about the brake light in the rear window as something that was invented by a psychologist and people have no idea that psychologists do that work in the area of human factors.

Faye: Yes, definitely. We had a few goals when we launched the museum and one of them was to really encourage people to understand that there are many kinds of psychologies and many types of psychologists. Because there tends to be a lot of knowledge of clinical and counseling psychology so people associate psychology with therapy and that’s definitely one of the central functions of psychology. But psychologists do all kinds of things and I really do think that people walk out of our museum realizing that that’s true. We look at psychology as a science so a basic laboratory science. We look at it as a profession in applied kinds of settings like businesses and workplaces and clinics and hospitals. And we also look at psychology as an agent of social change so the way that psychological research has led to significant changes in our social world, in our public policies, these kinds of things.

Mills: How do you acquire objects for the archives and for the museum and how do you decide what’s worth saving?

Faye: All the materials in our collections are donated and we’re relatively well-known now. So it generally happens that when people are starting to think about retiring they’ll contact us if they have material that they think is of interest to the archives. Either that, or once a person passes their significant other or their children or something along those lines they will contact us and let us know.

And then we have a discussion with those people about what exactly it is they have and we have collections policies that help us make decisions about what to include and what not to include but it isn’t an easy decision. Archives are always faced with one significant problem which is that your space is limited but your collections will always be growing. So, we face this issue and we do think carefully about what we accept but we are always open to having a conversation about materials that are available.

Mills: Is a lot of the archival material digitized?

Faye: Yes and no. The paper-based material we tend not to digitize quite so much because actually paper lasts a very long time. So, our priorities when it comes to digitizing material are really centered on media. So, we have a large collection of still images, photographs, negative slides. We have a large collection of about 12,000 reels of film and a number of objects as well. I think at this point we’re up to about 1400 artifacts from the history of psychology. And so, we focus our efforts on digitizing the media and preserving the artifacts. Paper-based materials most people are surprised to learn are probably the most stable kinds of materials the libraries and archives hold.

Mills: How big is the collection and how much is on public display?

Faye: The collection is approximately I would say 4,000 linear feet at this point. So, if you can imagine a linear foot is about the size of a standard moving box like a banker’s box. So, if you can imagine about 4,000 of those stacked up together that’s approximately the size of our collections. In terms of what’s actually available on display I would say 1% of that collection is on display in the museum. And we do have a rotating gallery in the museum where we switch out the exhibit as frequently as possible. Usually we try to tie that to current events in some way so that people can interact with history and the present at the same time. But for the most part, I would say we’ve got probably 1% and that’s pretty standard for most museums with large collections. And for us we consider that to be actually quite wonderful. It just means we have more stories to tell than we could possibly ever have time or space to share.

Mills: And you have an affiliation with the Smithsonian, right? What does that mean exactly?

Faye: Yeah. So we were actually the first archives in the country to become a Smithsonian affiliate. Others have followed suit but we became a Smithsonian affiliate in 2002. It’s quite a rigorous application process so we were quite pleased to be accepted into the program. And basically what it means is that the Smithsonian can borrow objects from us, we can borrow objects from any of the Smithsonian museums from their collection. So the American history, any of their museums, we can borrow from their collections. And also, their educators will come and speak at events, they’ll take part in our programs and we take part in theirs. So it’s been a really wonderful partnership. We participate in Smithsonian museum day which opens the doors to our museum for free to the public. We participate in their conferences. It’s been really, really fruitful for us and I think it helps us to bring better and more content to our public and our audiences.

Mills: How do you choose what ends up in your rotating exhibits? Is there some committee who works with you?

Faye: We have an internal committee that works on scheduling exhibits but for the most part we try not to be too strict about what’s going to go in that gallery and the reason being we really do like to reflect what’s happening in the present. So for example, some people may not know that’s where our museum is located in Akron, Ohio and some people may not know but Alcoholics Anonymous was founded in Akron, Ohio. So we look ahead at the calendar and say, “Well, if the anniversary of that founding is coming up we want to be a part of that. We want to create an exhibit on AA and its history and its connections to psychology.” Similarly around 9-11, we did a temporary exhibit on 9-11. So we like to be open and flexible with that gallery space and to keep our ear to what’s happening in psychology and what’s happening in the world and be able to think on our feet and put exhibits up that are going to matter and be timely.

Mills: Well, since our listeners can’t go to sea right now maybe you could tell us what’s in the gallery at the moment.

Faye: Well, actually in that gallery we were in the midst. When we shut down we were in the midst of creating an exhibit, a really interesting exhibit that I’m hoping will go up soon which is an exhibit on creativity. Something that’s very interesting to psychologists and I think very interesting to everybody. So, what is creativity? How have psychologists defined that over time? How have we created tests of creativity? So, one of the things that is featured in that exhibit are a whole bunch of different tests that visitors could actually take to explore their own creative talent.

We have creative works by psychologists in that exhibit so we have in our archives a number of poems and short stories and even a few films that were made by psychologists. So we highlight the creative work of psychologists, as well as the work that psychologists have done to understand creativity and to understand creative individuals. So, that’s the exhibit that I hope we’ll be able to launch. We are planning on opening again in some capacity this fall so hopefully that will be available for viewing. We also have a pretty great website and we’re working on getting some virtual exhibits up there. So currently we just launched a virtual exhibit on LGBTQ plus communities and their relationship with the history of psychology and contemporary relationship with psychology. So, we’re also working to make ourselves more available to everybody around the world.

Mills: Are most of your visitors, psychologists? Who are they? Where do they come from?

Faye: We definitely have a number of psychologists who come through, I would say psychologists and more so even psychology students. So, everything from high school psychology classes, we get a lot of tour groups through that have come to us from as far as Florida. All the way through to people who are well-established in the field. But it’s quite interesting because along with psychologists and psychology students we also just get a lot of the general public in. And I think that’s really been a matter of word of mouth and we’ve made it onto TripAdvisor and some of these other travel sites which helps as well. Yeah. And that’s where I look at to understand what people are getting out of the museum. And really, it seems that the general public is coming because they’re very interested in learning more about themselves. They can take tests, they can take intelligence tests, they can learn about how advertising uses psychology and be more aware of all of these kinds of things. So, we do get a lot of the general public in. But I would say the majority is probably students so people who are studying to become psychologists.

Mills: Now, I know you’ve written about the need to diversify the voices in psychology’s historical record. Can you talk about why that’s important and how you’re doing that?

Faye: Yeah, I think it’s so important right now to think about diversity in the historical record and this is one of the reasons I launched this oral history project and I’m doing it very purposefully with diversity in mind. I think that one of the reasons it’s so important to have a diverse historical record is because it not only defines what psychology has been but it defines what psychology can be.

So when someone who is thinking about becoming a psychologist looks at who has historically been a psychologist I think that impacts their decision on whether or not to go into the field. So, if you look at psychology and you only see white faces or you only see male faces I think it discourages diversity in the future of the field. So, this is one of the reasons I’m really interested in diversifying the historical record and creating exhibits that showcase the diversity of psychology because I think it will encourage a more diverse future for psychology.

I also think it’s just really important to understand all the contributions that diverse voices and faces and people have made to the discipline is. They’ve made significant contributions and this is something that often goes unrecognized. I teach history of psychology and I always ask my students how many women of color they can name in the history of psychology and often it’s very few if any and I would like to change that. I think it’s important to understand that there were just so many amazing women who shaped the field and they shaped it in ways that are different I think from mainstream voices and faces.

So, one of the things I’ve found by doing this kind of work is that for example African-American women in the history of psychology have done so much important work in terms of social justice and community outreach. So, they’re often left out of stories because our stories focus so commonly on the history of experimental laboratory scientific psychology. Whereas women of color and the history of psychology have done so much significant work in terms of the helping professions, in terms of applied kinds of psychology, in terms of working as psychologists in their community. So there’s this entire branch of psychology that gets missed when we leave out these diverse kinds of voices. So, I’m really hopeful that we can change that and that historians 100 years from now will have a better archival record to work with when they want to tell those stories.

Mills: And that realization I think led to the creation of the I Am Psyched traveling exhibition that you worked on with APA. I know I’ve seen that it’s been in our building. Do you want to talk about that for a moment?

Faye: Yeah the I Am Psyched exhibit is one of the most wonderful things I have been a part of in my career. It was launched in 2016 as part of the Smithsonian Institution’s museum day which they hold every year. So I worked with the American Psychological Association with Dr. Sherry Miles-Cohen as well as Dr. Alexander Rutherford who runs a project called Psychology’s Feminist Voices. And together we decided to create a traveling exhibit that could go from site to site that would showcase women of color in the history of psychology. And we worked with archival materials from our collections and created this exhibit that shared women of color in psychology all the way from the early 1900s to the first African-American woman to get a PhD in psychology all the way through to the present. Looking at, for example, the work of Jennifer Eberhardt who has done such groundbreaking work on stereotyping and racial prejudice.

And this exhibit was so successful. I was expecting it to be great and I was expecting it to gain some ground. But really I mean, at this point it’s traveled I think, to more than 40 sites across the country all the way from the east coast to the west coast. But the more thing about it is that as the exhibit goes up in any given site, and we hosted it here at the Cummings Center, people often will also have an event around it so they’ll get together a panel of speakers. They’ll have a party. They’ll get students to serve as docents for the exhibit.

And because of this it just brings all these people together in this very powerful, celebratory way to share and think about and talk about women of color in psychology’s past and present and it’s been wonderful. I think that it has created change already and I think that moving forward we can continue to mobilize that and help young girls and young women of color see psychology as a space for them, as a welcoming space and as a space where they can do the kinds of things they want and create change if that’s what they’re interested in.

Mills: Are there plans right now to get that back out on the road?

Faye: Yeah, I was just speaking with someone at APA about this and I think there are definitely plans to get it back out on the road. I think we’re not there yet. But one of the things we are currently working on or thinking about is how to get that available virtually. This seems to be the word of the year, can we make this available virtually and if we can we better. So we’re thinking about that right now and I do I think that’s going to be an important step for the exhibit. But I do really hope that once travel is allowed and once things are opened up again that we can get it back out on the road because I think those in-person events that happen around the exhibit are really the important part.

Mills: Well, thank you for joining us today Dr. Faye. It’s been a real pleasure talking to you.

Faye: Thank you Kim.

Mills: And I hope one of these days soon our listeners and I can visit the museum and the archives and actually see the collection.

Faye: I hope so too. We would love to have you.

Mills: To our listeners you can find previous episodes of Speaking of Psychology on our website at www.speakingofpsychology.org or wherever you get your podcasts. If you have comments or ideas for future podcasts you can email us at [email protected] That’s speakingofpsychology all one word at apa.org. Speaking of Psychology is produced by Lea Winerman. Or sound editor is Chris Condayan. Thank you for listening. For the American Psychological Association I’m Kim Mills.


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