The Art of Empathy


What do you do in a museum? Engage with the art and the objects intellectually? Or is a visit to a museum for you primarily a shared experience with friends and family as a kind of entertainment?

If the latter is the case, feel free to admit it. You’ll be welcomed with open arms. Because museums and cultural institutions have been redefining their value for a number of years. Today, “value” means more than just economic success, measured by the sale of as many admission tickets as possible, the proceeds of which enable the museum to fulfil its core functions, namely research, collecting, conservation and communication. Rather, museums are increasingly thinking about their social relevance. What can art achieve in an era that’s characterized by persecution, migration, extreme opinions and a general drifting apart of society? And what can museums as an institution do to counteract this dynamic?

When it comes to these issues, a definition coined by American sociologist Ray Oldenburg comes to museums’ aid. In his 1989 book, The Great Good Place, Oldenburg describes a “third place”, after home first and workplace second. This “third place” is a public place where people meet together to communicate with each other – it’s a place of social interaction. Oldenburg was primarily thinking of cafés, bookshops, bars and hairdressing salons. Museums, however, have discovered the “third place” within themselves and with that a new sphere of relevance. What if, as a public place, they not only served social interaction, but could also be a protected and safe place where people of different ages, backgrounds, religions and beliefs could come together and express their individual perspectives without fear of discrimination? Wouldn’t this help to create an increasingly diverse and inclusive society?

Since then, the call for multiple perspectives at all levels of museum work cannot be ignored. Not only are more and more services being created that appeal to a broad mass of people, in some cases attracting them into the museum for the first time – from yoga, meditation and cooking courses to late-night music events and guided tours for nursing mothers and refugees. At the same time, in digital education services communication and, above all, interaction are the order of the day. Instead of one-dimensional and unidirectional art education services, platforms are emerging that can enable as many people as possible to contribute (e.g. citizen science). Almost all programmes for children and young people are being developed by the children and young people themselves. Almost every app is linked to social media where users can leave comments or at least get involved in the conversation. And since the pandemic broke down the four walls of the museum as a “third place” to enter the endless expanse of digital space, the possibilities for social interaction seem limitless. For a long time now, virtual exhibition tours and (live) tours on Instagram have been reaching more people than the “protected place” of the physical museum building. Linking them to “user generated content” is just the next, obvious step.

But hold on a minute! The opportunity of sharing one’s own perspective doesn’t get us very far, because social interaction involves above all the ability to understand another person’s perspective – in other words, the ability to empathize. And museums fulfil this task, too, because they appear to be the ideal place to boost empathy: they own the objects and the associated stories that can stimulate our understanding of other cultures. But how should they tell these stories?

In her book, We Need to Talk: How to Have Conversations That Matter, the American journalist and talk-show host Celeste Headlee put it in a nutshell. In the book she describes the ability to listen attentively as an essential prerequisite for real compassion. Only those who really get involved and listen to other people, without formulating a comment in their mind in advance or talking over them with a supposedly similar experience, are able to learn something new and follow what the other person is saying.

Teaching people to listen instead of talking yourself is thus the starting point of every empathy-oriented mediation service. In light of the many technical and interactive possibilities offered by digital media today, analogue story-telling – people just talking to each other – seems almost too simplistic. Surprisingly, however, the demand for story-telling has coincided with a trend towards long-format audio. This means above all podcasts where nothing flashes or lights up the screen, but in which people just talk and are still sometimes able to entrance their listeners for hours.

We are also seeing this trend in the digital services offered by museums, namely a movement away from multimedia overkill and back to the spoken word. By contrast with the classic audio tour, which was dominated by curated, didactically formulated and professionally produced content, and which often increased the distance between the viewer and the museum object instead of transcending it, today personal narratives are setting the tone. It’s an approach that’s also being adopted by the hiStory ecosystem – which NOUS helped develop – and which enables older people to record their memories. They’re not professional speakers, but rather real people sharing their point of view in a way that moves us – and people who develop their feelings are well on their way to learning the art of empathy. Suddenly, doors are opening that you only have to step through to enter the “third space” of social interaction.

Eva Wesemann

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