Empathy: Intangible yet Powerful


Is learning tangible or intangible?  This question from a student in my museum learning class in India a few years ago brought me up short. Fortunaetly, my lack of a quick answer allowed for a great class discussion.  We finally came up with the idea that learning is intangible, but it can be measured–there are many ways to look at and quantify the conditions of “before learning” and “after learning.”  Despite its intangibility, learning is a powerful human experience.

Because of my deep involvement in the  Empathetic Museum project, I think a lot about why the concept of institutional empathy is not immediately obvious. Recently it occurred to me that the intangibility of empathy may inhibit understanding. Empathy, whether personal or institutional, is that “certain something,” that “je ne sais quoi” of human experience.  You know it when you feel it, either as the giver or recipient, but it may be hard to put into words.

The Maturity Model found on the Empathetic Museum website provides concrete steps a museum can take to build institutional empathy; but the concept itself may remain vague.  An example that is especially apt, and which I’ve often used, is the statement posted by the AAAM (Association of African American Museums) on its website in Noveember, 2014.  This was just after the aquittal of the  policeman who had killed Michael Brown in Ferguson, MO.  The statement extended condolences not only to the parents of Michael Brown but also to those of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin  and Tamir Rice, other black men recently killed by police. AAAM also asked member muiseums to use their collections and exhibitions to bring  historical context to these deaths.  This statement struck me because I realized that it could only have come from people who deeply connected with the families of these young men, who empathzed with them, who thought of them as “we” instead of “they,” I was  forced to admit the extreme unlikelihood at the time that such a statement would ever be issued by a white-run cultural organization. Why? Because most museums, administered and staffed primarily by white people, would not identify with the parents of these young men in a visceral way. My experience is that even the many white people who decry police violence do not perceive it in the same urgent way as black parents –as a threat to their own children.

I do believe, almost five years after Ferguson, that there are more cultural institutions connecting with wider audiences and willing to articulate that connection in terms that look like empathy. In Minneapolis-St. Paul, for example, both the Science Museum of Minnesota and MIA, the Minneapolis Institute of Art, took steps to show solidarity with communities protesting the death of Philando Castile.  This progress is, I believe, closely related to museum movements since Fergusion such as #museumsrespondtoFerguson, Museums and Race, The Empathetic Museum, and MassAction as well as the DEAI efforts of AAM. Staff at both SMM and MIAre among the leaders of these initiatives.

The purpose of the Maturity Model is to help institutions of the dominant culture move themselves into an institutional stance whereby they resonate with the issues that affect all of their audiences,  The best way to achieve this is to build a broadly inclusive board, administration, and staff, which will in turn shape collections, exhibitions, and programming, As an example, listen to the recent  Museopunks interview of the Director of the Baltimore Museum of Art on his vision for reshaping that institution.  Although he does not use the term “empathy,” he is clear about his desire to connect deeply with all communities in Baltimore, especially those of color.   Until our mainstream museums become transformed in this way, they will never successfully “attract underserved audiences.”  The absence of the intangible quality of empathy is a powerful barrier we cannot afford to ignore.

If you are reading this on email and wish to comment please send me a tweet @gretchjenn.  Thank you.


Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.