The Empathetic Museum: Synchronicity

Note to readers:  Not sure why my old post on museums in India went out earlier today. Apologies for something your in-box doesn’t need.   Here is current post: 

Ever notice an idea that you thought was original popping up in a number of places simultaneously?  That’s what’s happening with the topic of museums and empathy.  I’ve been blogging about The Empathetic Museum for over a year.  Recently and suddenly, through the viral connections of social media, I’m learning about a variety of museum practices already in place that specify empathy as one of their inspirations.  In addition, there seems to be interest in this topic from other fields.  Here are just a few examples:

Empathy Mapping
A few weeks ago on the LinkedIn AAM Group Leah Fox, Director of Public Programs at the Currier Museum of Art, mentioned a session on “Empathy Mapping” that she had attended at the last AAM meeting in Baltimore.  She has been using the techniques discussed and wondered if anyone else was using them.  This prompted a long discussion thread, with most people asking where they could find this tool.  Luckily, Dana Mitroff Silvers, who uses similar processes in her work, provided a number of sources on empathy mapping, including this link 
from the Stanford This one-pager on using an Empathy Map begins with the statement “Good design is grounded in a deep understanding of the person for whom you are designing.”



Empathetic Signage
Earlier this month Susan Timberlake, who blogs at Every Word Counts, posted “Better Living Through Signage,”  in which she discusses creating “emotionally intelligent” and empathetic interpretive labels that resonate with visitors’ experience.

Reconnection Through Contested Cultural Objects
In September I heard from Dr. Laura Peers, curator of American collections at the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford, about the role of empathy in her work.  Dr. Peers leads a project that brings Blackfoot Indian sacred shirts from the collection  to Blackfoot communities in Canada and the U.S. I am hoping she’ll write more about this project, perhaps a guest post.
The Art Museum as Healer
Several people sent me a recent Guardian article  by writer and philosopher Alain de Botton. De Botton encourages museums to organize their collections around themes that speak to the human condition–love, family, mortality, community, status, anxiety, thus encouraging a deeper, more personal engagement between visitor and art. I admit I am a bit leery of this approach because it shifts focus from empathy as a policy decision, which I advocate, to a more therapy-connected model. Yet it’s another perspective on empathy in the museum.

Opportunities to Talk about The Empathetic Museum
Edwin Rutsch, creator of The Center for Building a Culture of Empathy  interviewed me on Google Hangout in early October about my Empathetic Museum posts.  His Center is a hub of writing, thinking on creating a culture of empathy.  It features dozens of video interviews with people from a variety of fields about their take on empathy and its importance in their work. You can find the interview at the link above. Edwin is now interested in talking with other museum professionals on this topic, so look for more colleagues on this site or on YouTube, where the interviews are also posted.

Museum consultant Carol Bossert has just started a new radio program, The Museum Life, on the internet station VoiceAmerica  (not to be confused with The Voice of America, which I did at first).  It’s exciting to think of this kind of media exposure current thinking about museums. You can listen live on Fridays at 10 am Eastern time, and also find past interviews at the site.  Recent interviewees are David Carr and Elaine Heumann Gurian. Carol will be interviewing Janeen Bryant of the Levine Museum of the New South and me about empathy in museums.  I’ll tweet and post when it airs. 

It’s gratifying and amazing to see this coalescence of thinking about the role of empathy in the museum.  Is your museum using similar or related approaches?  

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