Radical Empathy in Museums

I've been thinking a lot lately about storytelling and empathy in museums. While we do talk a lot about innovative techniques to make storytelling more engaging, I find that we are still in the beginnings of talking about emotions or empathy in this context. I'm particularly interested in art dealing with lived experience, trauma, social and political contexts. We can notice a trend towards these subjects in exhibitions, but we seem to still lack guidelines to speak about the intersection where life and art meets. How do we engage in exhibition spaces with the evoked emotions? What kind of stories do we show in our spaces? What does an empathetic storytelling around sensitive subjects look like?

The dissonance between shared and non-shared experiences

Our experiences shape us and tell the story about the person we've become, the things that resonate with us, the ideas we generate, the fears we share, our sense of humor or where we go to find contentment. 

The relationship between curators and artists is a rather intimate one and it has to be close. We get to be part of a thought process, are lucky to be trusted with access to pieces that are not finished yet. As a curator I certainly did not experience the same events as the artists I work with but I learn and listen. Curators with different backgrounds will be able to relate to different artists, are able to make meaningful connections, be granted a behind the scenes to the thought process, and become part of a community. The art world is a place of connections and trust (not just as a pathway to success, but meaningful relationships and to care for someone and something is the only path to any longevity in this world).

As a curator the art pieces are my encounter with a narration, a witness to a thought process of an artist. I am trained to provide context, but as soon as personal or political topics are the source there is no way that I can pretend to not engage with the humanity of the piece. My human condition makes me long for empathy and I just can't assess my feelings referring to the pain without thinking about the once who are affected by it. When I encounter artists who are referring to the pain and traumas that they didn't experience themselves it becomes hard for me to just focus on the piece, even though I'm trained as an art historian, trained to apply theory and language, I am always asking artists about their approach of storytelling, their personal context to the topic and their involvement. Lived experience carries a different truth.  While anyone engaging with the pain of others does remain quit intact others who are triggered by the piece, by the shared experience, risk to lose their emotional and mental safety. 

It's not about who has the authority to tell a story but we have to honor that imagining a voice and addressing someone else's trauma will certainly be different than an upbringing with all the wounds. And pain can have been caused by a variety of reasons may it be linked to ethnicity, sexuality, political dissidence, race or any other reason. Sometimes the piece of art wants to speak about a painful event, transform the pain into visual language and sometimes it's about remembrance. But working with once own wounds and traumas puts people in a place of vulnerability, they risk to be absorbed and just be seen as this one thing (and I'm aware that it's never just one "thing" it's always structural) and to be linked forever to the heritage of being "outspoken". It asks us in the art world to care for the narration, to take it serious and above all understand that we cannot control how the public will react. Empathy is not just a reaction, it's the ability to connect to the humanity of another person, to their experiences and emotions.

It asks for an environment that gives space to these kind of stories and personal encounters. How can we in the art world handle the dissonance between artists who are part of the trauma and others who want to contribute a piece but are not part of the shared experience? This is where diversification of sources, team members and artists is so important as their different backgrounds brings new encounters with shared experiences, a better understanding of how to address things and break the authoritative voice of institutional narration. But let's get one thing straight, we can try to create as inclusive spaces as we want, we won't take ever trauma away. This is a whole different issue, that we can talk about in a different piece. What we can actually do is to care more for the once who made it through pain and want to engage in the conversations. I always get mad when I hear the phrase "giving voice to them", it's about time that we listen and do our job to broaden the research. And it is about time to think about empathetic curation. A thought that Julia Gray put eloquently in a tweet:

Trauma can have many reasons and and I feel that we need a broader toolset to address this kind of storytelling in the history of art. I always doubted my professors at university when they talked about being objective and neutral as an academic and killed any emotions in art - art, a world that is filled with artists fighting their demons, people passionate about their subjects and some of the finest vulnerable human beings. I was brought up in the German education system and academics are not supposed to embrace affection, which contradicts most of the pieces throughout history that go through all sorts of emotions before coming to life. I turned many times to the writing and thoughts of Sara Ahmed who wrote so eloquently about human affection. I seriously can't understand why she is not a stronger part of the art historical syllabus in universities. Her article on "Affective Economies (2004) has shaped my understanding of emotions as the glue of social fabric (and her current book "Living a feminist life" is giving me another toolkit).

Storytelling and empathy

Through my guided tours, in particular with teenagers and people who are not feeling comfortable in the art context, I was told that art can be boring, that they do not know where to start.

How do we make art come alive? Through storytelling and explaining what made this artist care enough to actually create this particular piece with its context. Not everyone might resonate with the intention of the piece but learning about what artists care about is one of the most exciting ways to encounter the world. What if we in the art world community foster the idea of the arts being a practice to exercise empathy? - cause one thing is for sure, this world needs more practice in empathy, needs to ask more questions and find ways to encounter different ideas. Our times are characterized by being estranged from one another and by not coming across ideas and experiences that are alien to us. The humanities are a world were people break themselves open and share their vulnerability courageously, admit that life can be messy and beautiful at the same time - refusing to simplify matters and celebrating that life can carry multitudes. 

Works of art do have different tempers, some are easier to encounter in a more meditative way and other pieces spark a more immediate response. I wonder if our problem is that we treat all art equally and do not admit that it will spark different tempers of reactions. Institutions often try to control reactions by providing a context but art doesn't just live merely in a historic and social context. There are pieces and whole collections of institutions that are deeply embedded in troubling contexts (misogynistic, racist, colonial) and need an updated reading and will cause emotions in others who try to fight the depicted image/ the background of the collection, or the feeling that the institutional context might normalize the problem. Political art and its discourse is often linked to lived experience and memory is another resource to generate knowledge that we should honor more in institutions. We get things wrong, and admitting errors as an institution and getting people involved to make it better is an important leadership skill.

Homo Bulla by  Jessica Kallage-Goetze , 2009, wax sculpture & Soap Bubbles, Photo Courtesy of the artist.

Homo Bulla by Jessica Kallage-Goetze, 2009, wax sculpture & Soap Bubbles, Photo Courtesy of the artist.

fostering empathy

The discussion around the topic of empathy in museums is pretty active right now. There are some interesting projects happening, some of them incorporating empathy in their institutional thinking and some trying to connect empathy to other practices. The Minneapolis Institute of Art just got a $750,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation to establish the world's first Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts. The press statement explains that the center aims for "collaborating with researchers, scholars, philosophers, content experts, artists, thought leaders, and colleagues at other museums to explore and research best practices to foster compassion and enhance related emotional skills. This ambitious initiative will span nearly five years, providing Mia and other art museums ample opportunities to purposefully build empathy into their learning practices as a strategy for impacting positive social change."

Roman Krznaric, one of the founders of the School of Life along with Alain de Botton, opened in 2015 the first Empathy Museum with the aim to help their visitors to develop the skill of changing their perspective and foster empathy through their particular museum programming and experiences there.

Elif M. Gokcigdem describes in her book Fostering Empathy Through Museums 15 case studies and the learnings of museums employing empathy in their concepts. In her Five Ways Museums Can Increase Empathy in the World she gives a brief summary about storytelling, experimental learning, sparking curiosity and contemplation.

The Empathetic Museum group has been advocating "for diversity of thought and authentic integration of empathy in museum practice".

In addition, have a look a the presentation of Mike Murawski, who gave 2016 at the Museumnext conference a presentation on the "Urgency of Empathy & Social Impact in Museums". He has also been writing recently on a series of articles about more human centered museums, part 2 is about building a culture of empathy where he beautifully writes: "Being a human-centered museum starts with the human connections and social relationships we build within the institution and among our community." 

The art world is not an abstract place, it is shaped through human experiences and connections. Neutrality does not exist in our experiences and is certainly not a concept that enables that people engage with each other. Life is much more complex and fascinating.

(*Small Blog Image: Anish Kapoor, in the "Intuition" exhibition, Palazzo Fortuny, Venice 2017. © The author)