The Empathetic Museum: Institutional Body Language

Since my last post, on the pop-up discussion about The Empathetic Museum at the American Alliance of Museums conference, Regan Forrest of the blog Interactivate has picked up on this theme and examined it from the perspective of interpretation and design. Her posts are well worth reading, and have generated more widespread discussion on this concept. Her discussion of  Dana Mitroff Silvers’ presentations on Design Thinking, which Silvers says begins with empathy, was especially interesting.  These conversations are building a description of empathy in museums that is rich and multifaceted, encompassing the ways in which museums communicate their collections to the public.
Institutional body language
With that in mind, I’m going to add another perspective to this consideration of empathy; something that I call “institutional body language.” There’s lots of writing and research today on the concept of human “body language,” the subtle ways in which our facial expressions, bodily stance, and gestures can communicate (unconsciously) our thoughts and feelings.  And the seemingly natural skill most of us have in picking up these unspoken messages.  Most of the time our non-verbal communication aligns with what we say.  Unless we are excellent actors or dissemblers, however, our body language can give us away when we say something that we don’t really think or feel.

I was thinking about institutional body language when the word empathy first occurred to me in connection with museums some time ago.  Empathy, the experience of feeling with and not just for another, requires a strong core, a sense of self that can dare to be open to the experience of others.  I think of the truly empathetic person as one whose inner and outer expressions of compassion are consonant with each other. Institutions have an inner core, an identity; and they can also manifest a kind of body language – messages that come through loud and clear even when the mission statement, website, and marketing materials say something different.  An institution that is not at its core truly visitor-centered, dedicated to inclusion, and committed to its community cannot, in my view, attract and retain the new and diverse audiences it may say it wants.  Why not?  Sooner or later, a slip of the tongue, an ill-advised promotion, a continuing lack of diversity in staffing and on the board,  a lack of follow-up (all examples of institutional body language) will give it away.

Do as I say
Do as I say, not as I do.

A few years ago I received the program of a museum organization advertising its upcoming conference.  As I glanced through the list of speakers as well as the illustrations showing museum staff and visitors in a variety of settings, I became aware that there was not a single person of color in the entire brochure.  I know that this organization promotes diversity in its publications and guidelines for members.  Yet in its choice of thought leaders as well as images of its work, it produced a conference program that might have been from the 1950’s.  I called the organization and expressed my concerns, and one or two photos of diverse groups of visitors appeared in the final program.  However, I think that museum professionals who are not “mainstream,” whatever that might be, pick up on these nonverbal messages: the absence of people who look like them in standard materials produced by organizations that say they value diversity. This example is not unique – it is reproduced in countless ways by museums and museum-related organizations everywhere.  When we look in the photo file for a quick example of x or y for a poster or marketing brochure, and we only come up with a very narrow range of humanity, we reflect a deep core that is not all that concerned with diversity after all.

The absence of a core commitment to inclusion and community will reveal itself sooner or later.
In conversations at the recent AAM conference, I came across several examples of this connection between the lack of  a strong and well articulated institutional core commitment to inclusion and ineffectual efforts to “attract a diverse audience.”  These examples came from art and history museums, both small and large, located in the south, midwest, and east.  In two cases a person of color (the only one at the museum) was expected to market specifically to her community as well as to the museum’s traditional audience, an upcoming exhibition of material from her ethnic/cultural group. In each case the exhibition was the first of its kind for the museum.  There were no docents from the communities the museum wished to attract, and no real history of communication or attendance for these new hires to draw on as they were trying to come up with a plan.  We talked about the possibility of creating a group of community advisers; of perhaps trying to recruit new docents from the community to begin to create some diversity within the institution.  But to be honest, these suggestions seemed a bit late in the game.  Although not expressed in so many words, these women–both new and somewhat junior in their organizations–were struggling to fulfill their job responsibilities but feeling very much out on a limb: promoting a product whose institutional context and support were extremely weak; the opposite of a core of empathy.  I think they feared that the communities they were supposed to attract would sense this and would be suspicious of the overtures. I’ve certainly seen this happen; have you?
In my experience, even if these projects bring in new audiences, they will not sustain them unless the institution itself is transformed by the experience; it can happen–the museum might chart a new path by recruiting board members from the new audience;  perhaps creating a community board; significantly transforming the collection; bringing in more staff and volunteers from the community;involving the community in the creation of future programs and exhibitions.
I’m interested to know what readers think about this concept of institutional body language, and whether you’ve seen examples among the cultural organizations you’re familiar with.

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One thought on “The Empathetic Museum: Institutional Body Language

  1. Pingback: How can museums foster empathy? | Museum Questions

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