The Empathetic Museum: Help Widen the Conversation

Following up on  June 7 and June 29  posts on empathy in museums, six museum colleagues from a variety of areas in the field are proposing a session called “The Empathetic Museum”  for the  May 2014 American Alliance of Museums Conference in Seattle, WA.  I’m one of the panelists, so this is a shameless plea for your support.  Since some of my posts on empathy have been the most viewed in this blog’s history I’m thinking that this topic resonates with the readership and  that you’ll endorse giving attention to this topic at AAM.


Since the Alliance has begun using crowd-sourcing as one way of selecting conference sessions, anyone who has an AAM Profile (don’t have to be a member) can log in to the website, create a profile if they don’t have one, access proposals, and “like” the ones they would like to see on the May program.


In the past I’ve approached this topic somewhat narrowly, looking primarily at the connection of diversity to empathy.  What my colleagues bring to the table is a much broader and more nuanced view that includes diversity broadly defined, responsiveness to community crises, and approaches to design. We’ve also placed the session in the “Organizational Planning and Evaluation” category because we believe that an empathetic stance is strongly connected to organizational leadership and vision.


Here’s a brief description of the session:


Visitor-centered; human centered; diverse; inclusive; community-oriented; welcoming; responsive; participatory.  This session proposes that these qualities of 21st century museums are impossible without an inner core of institutional empathy.


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.                                                             Merriam-Webster Dictionary (2013)


Translating this definition of empathy into an institutional stance has little to do with sentimentality or inappropriate emotionalism.  Instead, just as empathetic individuals must have a clear sense of their own identities in order to perceive and respond effectively to the experience of others, the empathetic museum must have a clear vision of its role as a public institution within its community.


Innovative Format


In this session, conducted in a “Fishbowl” format, colleagues from a variety of museum fields will lead off the discussion by sharing examples of how institutional empathy is at the core of their practice.


After the opening discussion, audience members will be asked to take open chairs in the “Fishbowl” and original discussants will take their places in the audience.  In this way there will be a rotation of sharing and experience. Kathy Gustafson Hilton, who has facilitated many of these kinds of discussions, will coordinate the rotation and keep the conversation going.


The session will conclude with a facilitated, hands-on exercise inviting participants to reflect on and create an action plan for how to integrate empathy into upcoming projects.  We hope to make the results of this exercise available for wider sharing on social media.


“Starter Fish” discussants


Gretchen Jennings, blogger at Museum Commons, introduces idea of The Empathetic Museum


Janeen Bryant, Levine Museum of New South, Charlotte, NC,  discusses empathy in her museum’s well-known approach to community building.


Margaret Middleton, Children’s Discovery Museum, San Jose, CA  will address Family Diversity –same gender parents, single parents, mixed race, and adoptive families, in exhibits and programming.


Rainey Tisdale, Museums and Creative Practice will report on leading a local effort to collect and  commemorate the Boston Marathon bombings one year later. Rainey blogs at CityStories.


Dana Mitroff Silvers, web strategy consultant and blogger at Design Thinking for Museums will discusses the “Design Thinking” process, an approach that begins with empathy


Kathy Gustafson-Hilton, of Hands-On! Inc will facilitate the Fish Bowl


So, even if you don’t plan to attend AAM, or don’t plan to attend the session (though of course we hope you will!), if you think this conversation is worth having, please go to the website and vote for our proposal.  The number of votes will not be the deciding factor for proposal selection, but high counts will no doubt indicate high interest.  Thanks for helping us to open up this discussion to the field.



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