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Museums: Actions for Integrating Empathy

Posted by Rachael Cristine Woody on 10/17/2018
Rachael Cristine Woody

Last week we explored the topic of museums as cultivators of empathy. Empathy was selected as a trend by the Center for the Future of Museum’s TrendWatch 2017, and last week’s post reviewed how museums are beginning to grapple with empathy as a part of their identity. This post follows up on the topic with resources and a list of actions suggesting how museums can encourage an identity of empathy.

When reading about empathy in museums it doesn’t take long before finding works by Mike Murawski, the Director of Education and Public Programs at the Portland Art Museum. Murawski has a MuseumNext talk and ArtMuseum Teaching article both entitled, “The Urgency of Empathy & Social Impact in Museums”. Both were provided in mid-to-late 2016, a time in which prejudice, conflict, and inequality had reached a fever pitch in the United States, Canada, and England.

In Murawski’s MuseumNext talk he postulates:

What if instead of just museums seeing themselves as wanting to be part of their community, we aspire for our communities to see themselves as part of our museums. We fight so hard for outreach and getting out into the community but sometimes we just need inreach – a way for us at [the] museum to open our ears, open our hearts and let others in, let others get involved in new and different ways.

It’s such an eloquent and seemingly simple thought: invite communities in to contribute themselves to the museum without curation, editing, or selection. And yet, it can be daunting to figure out where to begin.

The Empathetic Museum is a good place for museums to start. The online resource was birthed out of an American Alliance for Museum’s Unconference Session in 2014 and the informal conversations that took place near the event. The question they strove to answer was, “How could we, as an industry, approach the need for greater equality and representation using empathy as our lens?” As a result, the Empathetic Museum was created where resources and workshops on authentically integrating empathy in a museum can be obtained. One powerful and easy-to-follow resource is the Maturity Model: a metric for institutional transformation. The model explains:

Empathy is valued as an individual trait--an ability to emotionally connect with another person and value their life experience in an authentic way. But what about our cultural institutions? At a time when “diversity” and “inclusion” are more critical than ever to the future of our field, how can institutions themselves better reflect and represent the values of their communities? This assessment tool is proposed to help organizations move towards a more empathetic future.

For further clarity on how museums can integrate empathy into identity, the UK’s Museums Association created a vision for the impact of museums. Among 15 pages of inspirational actions and descriptions, the Association lays out the following principles:

  • Every museum is different, but all can find ways of maximizing their social impact.
  • Everyone has the right to meaningful participation in the life and work of museums.
  • Audiences are creators as well as consumers of knowledge; their insights and expertise enrich and transform the museum experience for others.
  • Active public participation changes museums for the better.
  • Museums foster questioning, debate, and critical thinking.
  • Good museums offer excellent experiences that meet public needs.
  • Effective museums engage with contemporary issues.
  • Social justice is at the heart of the impact of museums.
  • Museums are not neutral spaces.
  • Museums are rooted in places and contribute to local distinctiveness.

These principles re-enforce Murawski’s call for museums to “inreach” and help shift how museums have traditionally perceived their roles. Where this pamphlet could improve is by going one step further and acknowledging that the staff within a museum are people too. As Murawski succinctly states in his The Urgency of Empathy & Social Impact in Museums MuseumNext talk:

We need to stop the unnecessary separation between our work and ourselves and this type of passion. We need to create environments and museums where we, as museum workers, can be our whole selves, can bring our passion. […] We need to permanently, permanently put to rest the idea that a museum should be a neutral place and that its employees should be dispassionate.

Murawski concludes his MuseumNext talk with five actions every museum can take to integrate empathy into their core identity.

Action 1: Be More Local
It’s common for museums to separate themselves from the community and think of the community as external to the museum. The relationship, as the museum views it, is often one-way with the museum focused on what it can teach and provide the community versus what the community can teach and provide it.

Action 2: Engage with the Movement for Black Lives Matter
The Movement for Black Lives Matter has evolved the United States’ conversation surrounding the legacy of racism, state violence, and state neglect of communities of color. Murawski advocates that “we need to engage with and learn from the movement, help support and expand this community of social justice activists without dictating and without distorting the work already underway.” Reviewing racism’s role in museums is the first step, the second step is acknowledging racism’s role in the community today—a community the museum is a part of.

Action 3: Flip the Script
This action encourages the flipping of the traditional power narratives that exist within museums and critically evaluating how museums can shift power. This action is closely in-line with the related topic of decolonizing the museum. This isn’t a glib rallying cry, it’s a specific call to decisively alter who has the power to choose and tell the stories within a museum.

Action 4: Create a Personal Vision
As with many self-sought evolutions, this one also requires the creation of a personal vision. Here, Murawski urges each museum professional to connect with their core values daily, and to be reminded and guided by them.

Action 5: Build Communities of Action
For this final action, Murawski circles back to his assertion that museums cannot separate or deny the passion and beliefs that guide individuals employed at the museum. To begin this step, the museum must let go of the notion that it’s neutral and that its employees are passionless. Next, the museum must actively encourage its employees to engage in their passion and create an environment where action can be built and nurtured.

For more online resources and coverage of how museums are acting to integrate empathy, please visit these sites:


The hardest part is to begin. As with any good habit, choose one small step and incorporate it into your daily routine. Review these resources and suggested actions for inspiration and exercise each one until it becomes comfortable and second-nature. What’s important right now is that you begin.

Topics: Museums, Professional Development