The travelling Empathy Museum (UK), the Virtual Empathy Museum (Australia) — designed for Health Care professionals — and the research by The Toledo Museum in visual language (US) are a few examples of the growing interest of the museum world in Empathy.
As a former Ph.D. researcher, teacher, museum staff, and current coach, I have investigated and practiced the power of art learning for over 20 years. Empathy was one of my research interests and the foci of my coaching.
The following 3 examples discuss three different Empathy-related workshops that addressed children, museum staff, and health professionals respectively. I hope these can contribute to the discussion about the learning of Empathy. Can we train our professionals to be empathetic? Is empathy the answer to raising awareness? Can Empathy help us understand the past?
But first: What is Empathy?
Empathy is a complicated process. It involves emotional and cognitive responses, and the ability to understand social and cultural contexts.
Emotional Empathy involves:
- Affective Response: Immediate, subconscious reactions
- Affective Mentalizing: Mentally visualizing somebody’s state. Occasionally this causes physiological reactions.
Cognitive Empathy involves:
- Self-other awareness
- Emotion regulation
- Understanding of systemic barriers
- Macro Perspective Taking: Understanding their views as part of these contexts.
As neuroscientists Segal et al (2017) explain, if we can navigate through affective responses whilst achieving cognitive responses, we can reach the full scope of empathy. Social empathy is a crucial component of reaching cognitive empathy.
Empathetic History (St Fagans Open Air Museum, Wales, UK)
My PhD on How the National Curriculum for Wales and The National Museum of Wales construct understandings of history (2011) pointed out that all workshops for Key Stage 2 children (Ages 7–9) at St Fagans, National History Museum (currently National Museum of History) promoted Empathetic History. For example, children pretended to be pupils in the Victorian era (c. 1820–1914). The facilitator was a strict teacher, she used a cane etc. This is a very popular activity in UK museums.
However, Stockley (1983:61) argues that empathy should be regarded as part of an already- developed scheme of historical skills, which could be further developed through empathy. This agrees with the most recent neuroscientific studies like the one mentioned above and my study. The pupils used their emotions to make sense of a historical period. This led to misconceptions: for example, they were confused about who was rich and who was poor. After the children were ‘caned’ in the classroom, they played Victorian games, which confused them as to whether the Victorian children were happy or sad. Empathy, in our case, was not helpful to develop historical understanding.
Understanding Eye Conditions (Cardiff Story Museum, Wales, UK)
As a member of the Front of House team at the Cardiff Story Museum (2011- 2013), we had diverse training in Inclusivity. One of our sessions was dedicated to understanding blindness. During the session, we wore different goggles that simulated different eye conditions. We also went through devices that make a blind person’s life easier. At that time, I was impressed! However, I soon realized that understanding the condition is only one part of understanding disability. What happens beyond the physical aspect of a condition? Are there different experiences of blindness? In our case, identifying just the condition led to sympathy, not empathy.
Empathy workshop with Health Care workers (Online, 2022, UK)
In 2022 I did a series of online Empathy training sessions for healthcare professionals, using Art experiences. Most healthcare professionals focused on the fact that Empathy is a complicated issue. They were afraid that it may lead to compassion fatigue. With one exception, all of them found Art a very interesting tool to start thinking about how other people feel. They were intrigued when we took up the role of a portrait when they sharpened their observation skills by looking at a painting, relaxing through slow looking, or taking the singer’s perspective. However, due to the team’s lack of time and the one-off character of our seminars, I didn’t thoroughly discuss daily scenarios and the nature of work — something that I always do with my clients. In this case, the training was an introduction to Empathetic skills.
So… Can museums teach Empathy?
Yes! Here are five areas we could focus on:
- Ask if and why: As professionals, we need to ask if and why Empathy is what we need to achieve through a project or exhibition. Empathy, for example, is different from raising awareness.
- Develop Empathy as museum professionals first: Co-curation and community projects are a great start for the re-interpretation of collections. However, this does not necessarily lead to Empathy. Empathy will involve targeted CPD training.
- Context is key: When we ask our visitors ‘Imagine how it was to…’ we need to give them the tools to do so: from historical contexts to personal views will help the visitor understand where the object ‘is coming from’. The complete absence of labels is not working if we need to develop Empathy.
- Equally, give visitors space: We need to allow our visitors to explore their feelings and ideas, first, when engaging with the object. Self-awareness is the key to developing cognitive Empathy. We need them to start a ‘dialogue’ between the object and the visitor. This paves the path to Empathy.
- Help visitors apply empathy: Whether it’s a specific programme or exhibition, we need to help visitors apply empathy in their daily and/or work life. Co-curation, good research, and an understanding of empathy are key to suggesting practical application ideas.
Dr Eleni Kostarigka
Dr Eleni Kostarigka is a Personal and Organisational Development Coach. Her PhD in Museum learning as well as her career in museums and education have helped her develop her Learning-through-art method. She’s now helping her private and organisational clients reach their goals, through developing Creative Thinking, Empathy, and Mindfulness skills.