The Empathetic Museum: A "Pop-Up" Conversation

In response to the tragedy at Sandy Hook Elementary School, The Maritime Aquarium is offering free general admission to all residents of Newtown, as well as to Newtown educators and Newtown employed first responders and their immediate families (up to 6 people per family), now through all of 2013.
“We at The Maritime Aquarium are heartbroken by the events of Dec. 14 and strongly feel the need to reach out,” said Jennifer Herring, the Aquarium’s president. “Ours is a small but heartfelt gesture that we hope will help the people of Newtown.”
Herring emphasized the healing power of animals. Numerous studies show that interactions with animals can be especially relaxing and relieving in times of stress. “Perhaps our offer will mean some nice ‘quality time’ for Newtown families,” she said. “However it may help, we would be honored.”  The Maritime Aquarium, Norwalk, CT
What is “The Empathetic Museum”?  A group of 10 colleagues stopped by to share their thoughts in room 311, “Unconference Room” at the Baltimore Convention Center during the recent meeting of the American Alliance of Museums (AAM).  A few days before the conference AAM announced that there would be a white board outside room 311, and the schedule for “Pop-Up Sessions” would be built on a first come first served basis.  I got there in time to reserve Monday morning at 8:45, and met a group of museum colleagues- some familiar and some new- to examine this idea.

Janeen Bryant of the Levine Museum of the New South and Joanne Jones-Rizzi of the Science Museum of Minnesota and I had proposed a session on this topic back in August, but it wasn’t accepted for the mainstream conference program.  We agreed to try for this impromptu session, and it turned out to be both engaging and frustrating.  Engaging because of the interested, committed participants, and frustrating not because of the content of the discussion but because of its very existence: Why are we still having this conversation?



A Useful Definition of Empathy


I put this definition from Mirriam-Webster up on the screen:


Empathy: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner.



There are two aspects of this definition that I think are noteworthy:


  • The idea of experiencing the feelings of others from either the past or present seems very useful for museums;
  • The idea of experiencing others’ feelings without them being fully and explicitly communicated, i.e. knowing without being told, is a nuance I hadn’t seen in other definitions.

We agreed that often, simply showing awareness of a major event, especially if the museum has a related object or collection, is an empathetic act. Our discussion included examples of museums’ responses to contemporary events from the death of iconic personalities to natural disasters to political and social crises like the Boston Marathon Bombings.  We talked about:


·    The irony of make-shift memorials proliferating in London while museums that held collections relating to Princess Diana appeared not to acknowledge her death; the decision of administrators of an Australian museum to put out a jacket of Michael Jackson as news of his death spread round the world.  The museum became the central place for mourners in Australia to show their respect.


·    The sensitive response of the New York Public Library system to the victims of Hurricane Sandy in its midst as compared with the relative non-responsiveness of local museums. In the aftermath, NYPL began communicating through social media that, as each branch reopened, it would be available as a place to get warm, get water, recharge cell phones, etc.  And everyone got an extension on overdue books!  Many museums were hard hit themselves with flooding, power outages, and other damage.  But once up and running, as several of us noted at the time, museums in the area hardly acknowledged or responded to the devastation in their midst.  A blog from the Institute for Museum and Library Services discussed museum and (mostly) library response, but efforts to find mention of Sandy on the websites of AAM, ASTC, or the Mid-Atlantic Association of Museums went unrewarded. In the six months following the disaster we’ve seen local libraries setting up “pop-up” libraries in areas that continue to be devastated, and Red Cross volunteers bringing puppetry, games, and other programming to children in temporary housing. Museums, which are expert in entertaining and engaging children and families, don’t seem to have been much involved in these kinds of outreach efforts. (This is where “knowing without being told” becomes operational.)


·    Boston museums’ response to the Marathon Bombings showed a range of community-connectedness, from offering free admission and solitude in art museums, to a wide spectrum of services organized by the Children’s Museum for local families and children, among them victims as well as the city at large.


·    Comments from two colleagues from India.  One mentioned the difficulty government-run museums have in addressing politically and culturally sensitive issues – a situation that Smithsonian museums have experienced.  Science museums in India view one of their key roles as increasing science literacy, especially in situations affecting public health.  Sometimes they are in conflict with traditional views of medicine, but they believe they must speak out when health and safety are imperiled.


Empathy Is a Policy Decision


Several things became clear during the exchange:


·    Far from being a “soft,” emotion-laden stance, an empathetic response to any community concern begins at the level of museum policy and administration. It must be a clear-headed and unsentimental decision.


·    This relates to another condition for empathetic response – systems already in place: staff, procedures, community contacts built consciously over time.


·    These two elements must be present for museums (not known for alacrity) to have a timely response to crises in the community, whether local, national, or global. And in the digital age, timely means today or tomorrow.


The above pre-conditions for an empathetic response indicate a museum that is transformed from within, one that doesn’t just want to be a part of the community; it is a part of the community, and identifies as such. This can be seen in all sorts of non-obvious ways: not simply hiring a person of color to be a community programs coordinator, or hosting an exhibition to “attract a diverse” audience, although these are of course important elements of a museums’ effort to be more inclusive. An empathetic museum is that way from the inside out rather than encouraging the “outside” or “outsiders” to come in. Its very “body language” says “we are with you.”  This is true all the time, but in times of crisis especially so.


So- Why Are We Still Having this Conversation?


–        That museums are good places to have conversations;

–        That museums must be more diverse and inclusive in their boards, staff, collections, exhibitions, programs, audiences;

–        That museums must be more immediately responsive to crises and concerns within their communities.

Both participants who’ve been at this for a generation, as well as participants who are part of the new generation of museum professionals, were asking this question during the discussion.  We’re not sure we have a single answer, but the question itself is worth examining more closely.  Maybe this should be the title of a session – or maybe an entirethread of sessions, not only at AAM but at other museum conferences in the coming year.   What do you think?


Some Encouraging Developments


One of the discussants at the pop-up, Claudia Ocello, has become the Nancy Drew of empathetic museum responses.  Here are a few items she’s tracked down and sent along since our meeting:


·    As shown above, The Maritime Aquarium in Norwalk, CT is offering free admission to Newtown families, teachers, and first responders.

Hurricane Sandy: Record, Remember, Rebuild


·    The Hurricane Sandy Project created by HistoryPin

·    The American Association of State and Local History (AASLH) is encouraging history organizations to participate in the Hurricane Sandy Project.


·    I also found an interesting website – psychologists from MIT studying how the process of telling and listening to stories can create empathy between disparate people and cultures. The website provides entry to an ongoing online conference on promoting a culture of empathy    With the storytelling theme at the center of this year’s conference, it could have been the basis for a great session.  Maybe next year?

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