The Empathetic Museum: Connecting through Collections

In early June I posted a summary of a “Pop-Up” session I organized at the recent meeting of the American Alliance of Museums in Baltimore, MD.  About ten participants joined in a round-table conversation about what might be meant by “The Empathetic Museum.”  Daryl Fischer was part of the discussion, and here are some of  her thoughts about a visit to the Walters Art Museum with colleague Swarupa Anila. 

Empathetic Musings on a Visit to the Walters Art Museum

by Daryl Fisher
The last day of AAM my colleague, Swarupa Anila from the Detroit Institute of Arts, and I have a tradition of visiting a museum together. As we walked through the galleries of the Walters Art Museum we talked about the pop-up session on Empathetic Museums led by Gretchen Jennings. Our visit and our conversation inspired the following observations.

The installation transported us into another world, the world of the collectors, William Thompson Walters (1819-1894) and his son Henry Walters (1848-1931), who made their fortunes in liquor, banking, and railroads and amassed a huge private collection that was later given to the city.

There are so many objects—paintings, sculptures, furnishings, decorative arts, shells, stones and taxidermy—that the overall effect is mind-boggling.  It’s hard to take it all in, let alone to focus on individual objects; nevertheless, there is a strong sense that each object is precious so we observed visitors trying to do just that, often with the help of wall mounted labels for individual objects or laminated cards for groups of objects.

Often taking the perspective of the collectors, labels were, in some cases, insensitive to the cultures that created the richly diverse objects that lined the walls of the Chamber of Wonders.  For example:

Mummy of a Young Girl, 100 B.C.-A.D. 100

Egyptian (Roman Period)

            Egyptian mummies were greatly sought after during the 17th century. Scholars, including the Flemish painter Peter Paul Rubens, were interested in ancient funeral practices; princely collectors were delighted by the association with the Egyptian pharaohs (though most mummies were of not such exalted status); while pharmacists wanted to bring up the mummified bodies to make “elixir of mummy,” thought to be an effective remedy for many ills.

            The mask depicts the face, wig (resembling long braids with gold beads), and a covering of the upper torso. See the Egyptian antiquities in the Collector’s Study and the Egyptian Art installation on this level in the Centre Street Building.

Partially painted and gilded cartonnage, ceramic beads, linen, human remains

Looking at the small recumbent figure, visitors might wonder about the life of the young girl whose remains have been for preserved for some 2000 years.  How old was she?  What kind of family did she come from?  How did they mourn her death?  How common was child mortality in ancient Egypt?

In contrast, a label in the Collector’s Study does a good job of helping visitors to get inside the minds of wealthy collectors during the Renaissance.

This room evokes the private study or studiolo (literally “little study”), where an educated, wealthy nobleman living in the 1600s in the Southern Netherlands (present-day Belgium) might spend leisure time studying beautiful objects. The walls were often lined with closets (with doors closed, not open as here) above which hung portraits of inspiring figures from the past. They were sometimes accompanied by an instructive saying reminding one of higher truths. Objects were studied as much as books. The cabinets contained small items that were especially treasured or useful to have at hand for examination and comparison. The legacy of Renaissance humanism is evident in the importance of objects and themes associated with antiquity and in the emphasis on acquiring knowledge through study.

The idea of learning about the past by studying objects in much the same way as one would study books provides a key to understanding Renaissance humanism.  It might also suggest a contrast with the way we learn in our virtual world today.  What can be learned from actual objects that cannot be gleaned from copies?  What percentage of the population had access to this kind of study collection?  What opportunities did those who were not born into wealth have to learn about the rest of the world?

Some labels such as this one are direct in addressing the differences between classes:


Early Byzantine (Egypt), 6th-9th century

The central motif of a cross suggests that these rare leather shoes were made for a priest, although they could also have been worn by an upper-class man. Most poor people in this period went barefoot, including shoemakers, while those who could afford to wore sandals (government officials), slippers (monks and clergy), or boots (soldiers and laborers).

Leather, partially gilded

Though no visitors to the Walters will be barefoot, this short label speaks volumes about the extremes of wealth and poverty, a theme that contemporary visitors can certainly relate to.  Many might note the irony of shoemakers going barefoot while priests and the wealthy wore shoes painted with gold.  They might wonder what a socioeconomic study of footwear could reveal about the haves and have nots in our own time and place!

Childhood is a theme that resonates with visitors of all ages and smiling faces are hard to resist. Labels like the following strike those profound human chords:

John Opie

British, 1761-1807

The Game of Chess, 1790-99

In this enchanting painting, two boys play chess while a third looks on, perhaps waiting to play the winner. The chessboard juts out into our space, inviting us into the game as well. Opie, himself a child prodigy, captured the pure joy of play, reflecting a revolutionary new philosophy about the importance of play in childhood that was developing throughout Europe during the late 18th century. In place of stiff, corseted garments, looser unrestricting clothes, such as the green outfit worn here, allowed children to move freely at last.

Oil on canvas

Instead of describing the technique of foreshortening in art historical terms, this label demonstrates it for visitors by pointing out how the chessboard “juts out into our space, inviting us into the game as well.”  Introducing the idea of play as revolutionary could lead to family discussions about how much our lives have changed, over the centuries and even from one generation to the next.  How do children, parents, and grandparents dress for the different kinds of play they enjoy today?

Aging, too, is a theme that resonates for all humans.  In well under 100 words, this label shows deep empathy for both the subject of the painting and its creator:

Edgar Degas

French, 1834-1917

Portrait of Estelle Balfour, 1863-65

Estelle Musson Balfour (1843-1909), the artist’s cousin from New Orleans, visited France in 1863-65. She was in mourning for her husband, who had been killed at the Battle of Corinth, Mississippi, while fighting on the side of the Confederacy in the Civil War. At the time that this portrait was painted, Mrs. Balfour was going blind. Degas, too, would eventually lose his sight, and the painting explores the experience of seeing those who cannot see.

Oil on canvas

As these few examples have shown, a collection like the Walters’ has tremendous potential for tapping into empathetic responses by helping visitors to explore connections—connections between collectors and collected, rich and poor, young and old, artist and sitter.  Especially if interpretation emphasizes the things we all have in common.


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