Can institutions be empathetic?

In recent years, there has been a growing call for museums to be “empathetic” as a solution to a raft of problems. Mike Murawski links empathy and social impact (something he also spoke about at MuseumNext), Robert J. Weisberg draws diversity into the discussion, and the Empathetic Museum group argues that museums are impossible without an inner core of institutional empathy, or “the intention of the museum to be, and be perceived as, deeply connected with its community.” There is even a new book aimed at fostering empathy through museums. But, as much as I love the values embodied in the Empathetic Museum Maturity Model, this is a concept I struggle with.

Institutions have certain characteristics that define what they are and how they behave. They regulate behaviour and actions by offering systematic solution to social problems. As structures, they provide mechanisms for action related to social problems that require organisation or regulation. In many ways, this is why institutions are so critical for the perpetuation of cultures–through their “traditions, constituencies, structures, human and material resources, stories, values and goals,” they enable the mission and the work to go on despite shifts in internal and external environments. These same characteristics constrain institutional change, and make it difficult for individuals to significantly influence the institution. They also run counter to empathetic action, which requires individual approaches. nikhil trivedi and I have been grappling with this in our correspondence on museums and structural change.

This is an obvious problem when we’re talking about entrenched oppression. Institutions allow for dominant cultures to prevail and reassert itself through time without direct influence. nikhil makes an important observation when he writes, “Although institutions may be designed not to respond to individual cases, they have always impacted individual people. Often in significant ways.” This is obviously true, and yet, it runs counter to my understanding of how institutions behave. Take, for instance, this comment from Susan Edwards:

our very organizational structure prohibits diversity, and that in order to embrace true diversity we have to change our organizations at their core. The aspects of traditional organizational culture (not just in museums) that prohibit diversity include things like the lack of value in collaboration (i.e. democratic participation), a culture of secrecy, siloed departments, and micromanagement and hierarchical structures. These structures are designed to keep the powerful insiders in control, and to devalue the contributions of the outsiders.

The gordian knot of these forces, of these traditions and politics, and the relationship of power to these questions should not be ignored in discussions about empathy, but they’re often left unaddressed.

There is also a question of who we have empathy for? Weisberg writes:

I don’t want to beat the drum (better than a dead horse) of empathy, but … shit, who am I kidding? It’s ALL about empathy, now. We have to get out from under our desks and walk in the shoes of colleagues we have marginalized (and start with the parts of the museum staff — often non-white — who have felt the brunt of job actions, and not the curator who feels threatened by tech-driven disintermediation), the audiences whom we haven’t made feel welcome in our institutions, and yes, even the Trump voter about whom we’ve read so much but never seem to have met outside of awkward family gatherings.

How can we be empathetic for everyone, all at once? Different audiences need different–sometimes explicitly clashing–things. To serve one well often means deciding not to serve another with the same fervor. We can, of course, make decisions to change who our institutions are serving and how, but doing so means, amongst other things, redistributing resources away from existing projects, and potentially, away from existing audiences (and donors!). To draw in new constituents means being willing to lose some of the existing ones whose needs will necessarily not be looked after as well as they were. It means making a decision that a new audience with new needs should be prioritised over an older audience with known needs and relationships. That can be worrisome for institutions that lack faith in their own reproducibility. Institutions are invested in their own survival, so when we talk about changing them, it is important to talk honestly about the complexity of reallocating resources (time, finances, etc.) away from existing projects and priorities, particularly if those resources are aimed towards new (otherwise known as unknown or unproven) audience.

Changing institutions is hard and important work. But museums do not exist in a vacuum. Their practices and habits, their structures all link to the other institutions they interact with, such as the art market, education systems, governments, and funding bodies. It comes from their histories. It is embedded in their institutional body language. To make lasting change has to mean working on the systems themselves, and not merely on the culture of the institution. Richard Sandell’s paper on social inclusion, the museum, and the dynamics of sectoral change is useful reading on this topic.

Weisberg recently wrote:

If museums want empathy to really take hold, there’s no short cut to addressing diversity within the institution.

I’d like to change this slightly. There is no short cut to addressing diversity within the institution. There is no short cut to addressing diversity deliberately and thoughtfully, and persistently. Although I am aligned with many of the goals of those seeking to push a model of an empathetic museum, I worry that when we make institutional change a question of empathy, it becomes something we can ignore it because acts as a value choice, and fails to critical address and face into the complexities and challenges of institutions.

I’d love to hear your thoughts. Do these ideas about institutional empathy resonate with you, as they do with so many? If so, how do you think about that concept, and how does it drive your work in museums?


14 thoughts on “Can institutions be empathetic?

  1. Hey Suze, thanks for the thoughtful post! A few things to consider here. It should be useful to be very clear about what it is we mean by empathy and just how we think it is useful.

    First, there is the process of using empathy as a way for museum program designers to understand their audiences better. In the practice of Design Thinking, to take one example, empathy is considered an essential component of solution definition, ideation and iterative prototyping in product development. If empathy can be defined as using one’s imagination to try to anticipate the qualities of another person’s experience, then workshopping ideas with people who meet the profile of the anticipated audience can help make imagination less a shot in the dark or a matter of opinion. Yes, there is diversity in those anticipated audiences, but broad commonalities too, and there is a growing body of research providing useful insights into what those commonalities, those engagement points, are likely to be. Part of our process of empathy, therefore, should not live only in the imaginations of the museum makers, but should extend to an externalized process of iterative engagement with the public. To serve the public in a meaningful way, empathy can’t be merely imaginary.

    Next, there is the complexity and chemistry of internal teamwork. There is evidence to suggest that the most creative and successful work is often the product of inclusive teams engendering a variety of perspectives, skills and values rather than those more exclusive and homogeneous. If a shorthand for diversity is difference, inclusion can be defined as making differing perspectives a part of the decision making process. The trouble is that our institutional leaders often prefer to surround themselves with people who agree with them so as to avoid being unsettled by the personal challenges real inclusion is bound to bring. Exclusion is often an unconscious and defensive choice.

    So let’s accept that diversity is the reality of the world we live in, but inclusion is a choice. More to the point, inclusion is a choice to lean into conflict, to include differing voices, perspectives and values when not doing so might be easier, more comfortable and efficient. In order to be empathetic, we must be open, we must be willing to learn things. Sometimes anxiety is telling us it’s time to learn. At best, empathy is a reciprocal process: people understanding and learning valuable things in an open exchange. Empathy also means that inclusion isn’t merely perfunctory, but that those differing voices carry real weight and play a meaningful role in shaping decisions.

    So what does this suggest in the way of empathetic processes? Museums can work to establish a culture of inclusion and, further, to do so is probably necessary for the survival of museum institutions. There’s evidence to suggest that empathy can be modeled by leaders and learned. Inclusion can be stated in the values and mission of the museum. Inclusivity can be evaluated as a part of individual and institutional performance. Museum leaders can begin to seek difference in hiring and team assignments rather than avoiding it. Museums can study their audiences more assiduously and begin to include people who are not on staff in more deliberate, regular and meaningful ways. Museum workers can learn active listening and conflict resolution techniques, can learn to manage difference in constructive and creative ways while building trusting professional relationships. Some think that this is a process of compromises, but this way of thinking about it produces mediocrity. This is a an optimization process, a process of improvement.

    1. Dan, thank you so much for this useful reply. I think you immediately hit upon one of the things I find challenging in this topic: that question of what is meant by empathy, and how it is useful. While I agree with you that empathy is an important tactic in design thinking, and that empathy should be employed openly with friends and colleagues with the intent of creating a culture of empathy within a workforce, I am still uncertain about empathy as a tactic for inclusivity or massive institutional change.

      Jesse Prinz, Distinguished Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York, Graduate Center, has published on the topic of empathy, proposing that empathy is “a kind of associative inference from observed or imagined expressions of emotion or external conditions that are known from experience to bring emotions about.” He argues that empathy is prone to biases–such as similarity bias– that render it potentially harmful. He writes:

      We can empathize with members of the out-group but only by making their similarities salient. For example, television pledge-drives for hunger relief present vivid pictures of starving individuals that pull on our moral heartstrings. But there is no way to cultivate empathy for every person in need, and the focus on affected individuals distracts us from systemic problems that can be addressed only by interventions at an entirely different scale.

      Likewise, Ken Fuchsman’s paper on Empathy and Humanity notes that:

      Empathy remains strongest towards people in our culture and whom we know well, while discrimination occurs towards out groups. Both caring and rage seem integral to our species. We are bountiful in our embrace of the joys and sorrows of those in our inner circle and larger groups, yet often do not recognize that we take actions against others that violate the Golden Rule. Empathy is more regional than global, and it competes with other equally human, if less benevolent, traits that stem from the same experiential roots in infancy intrinsic to the human condition.

      Exclusion may often be an unconscious and defensive choice, but I’m not sure that empathy changes or reverses that. So when empathy is held up as the locus of social impact in the museum, I worry that it further or still blinds us to our biases, whilst taking on the added position of moral rightness, which makes it harder to question.

  2. Well, yes, I agree that it is ontologically impossible to truly comprehend what it is like to be another person with all of the complexity that implies. But that is probably a limiting definition of empathy. The nascent opportunity is that empathy is one of the most powerful adaptations we have as a species to bond one human to another–it is part of our adaptive equipment for coping with difference. Empathy skills are essential for healthy social interaction, for example studies show that children with higher empathy skills make deeper and more lasting friendships and do better in school as well. Moreover, a lack of empathy is associated with sociopathological behavior. I would further argue that experiences with cultural expressions, like drama, art, fiction, the humanities and the institutions that present them, are basically empathetic in nature in that they afford powerful opportunities to vicariously explore the basic challenges, dilemmas, and idiosyncrasies of being human, including interpersonal and intercultural relationships, through the expressions and experiences of others. Still, there is no substitute for direct experience with difference and every person has an opportunity to grow through encounters with those who have different worldviews, life experiences, etc.

    If learning is changing, then we should be able to change by widening our preconceptions, prejudices and inevitable biases based on meaningful encounters and exchange with people dissimilar to us and I believe many of us have and do this over the course of our lives. Besides the writings you have cited here, I’ve heard a more instinctive critique amongst my colleagues. Many people confuse empathy with sympathy. Others harbor a suspicion that empathy is something sort of touchy-feely, cloying, manipulative, or worse, just another way that people of the dominant culture objectify people who are marginalized. While some of these pitfalls are, in fact, possible and highly problematic, the alternatives of denial, resignation or stasis are even more indefensible. As long as we walk the earth, we have a responsibility to make progress, otherwise we and the institutions we represent, will never change. Arguably, if we don’t change, our institutions are headed for oblivion (See The Life Stages of Museum Visitors by Reach Advisors.)

    At the institution where I work, all program managers with direct reports and hiring authority were able to get cultural competency training as part of our strategic plan. One activity we did was to take the Intercultural Development Inventory (IDI), a survey tool that measures an individual’s degree of receptiveness to cultural difference. When you complete the survey, you go over the results in a confidential interview with a trained facilitator who explains where you are on a continuum of proficiency and what sorts of ways that level expresses itself in your interactions with others. In my case, it nailed my thought processes and behaviors with uncanny accuracy. The facilitator then offers concrete steps you can take to move farther along that continuum toward a higher level of intercultural competency. For myself personally, it was revealing and humbling, but also super useful for my work and I reflect back on it often as I try to forge ahead.

    As part of this effort, I attended The Forum for Workplace Inclusion for several years . One of the things I found fascinating there is that the corporate world is much farther ahead than cultural institutions in looking at how to effectively work in a diverse workplace and world. (I can’t speak for the quality of implementation, but it is acknowledged and treated as a serious undertaking across the business spectrum.) For instance, think about the challenges of managing a business with global reach, with hiring, training, manufacturing and supply chains, wholesale and retail markets, etc., etc. I had never considered it before, but to be successful, it is invaluable to have much higher levels of intercultural competency.

    1. Dan, I think your comments actually start to get at what I find so troubling or problematic about these ideas of institutional empathy. Empathy as a person-to-person phenomenon is so important. As you say, it leads to social bonding, and helps us cope with and relate to difference. We grow from encounters with people whose lives are different from our own. It’s been one of the most irreplaceable aspects of moving to Baltimore for me. Life in the US, and in Baltimore, is very different from my life in Australia, and I think I’ve grown a lot in response to those alternative experiences and from encountering people whose experience of the world has been very different to my own.

      But, it is not possible for me to empathise with everyone in my community or my city all at once. The communities in my city are broad and deep, not narrow or shallow. To assume I could hold empathy for all the people within it obscures the very difference in experiences and needs that the people in my city or community have. I am at risk of making blanket assumptions and stereotypes, because I am seeking to group all members of a community or disperse and divergent communities together. And that is a problem. Empathy is perhaps best and most effective when deployed personally… it’s why it’s so useful in design thinking, because specific personas are used for problem solving, and why it loses its usefulness when spoken of in a generic, non-specific way.

      The examples you cite, of building in intercultural competency training and looking at outside sectors to learn how to better incorporate inclusive practice in the workplace are wonderful. I think we should all be doing that kind of training, and building better museums through deliberate actions. This, for me, is not an argument about doing work that helps create fairer institutions, and ones more in touch with individuals in local communities, and their many specific needs. It’s an argument about the language and metaphors we use to describe such work. Empathy is often spoken of uncritically, and that can present a problem if we’re not fully acknowledging the complexities of this work, and empathy’s limitations.

      1. Two comments.

        Even though every individual is unique, every individual also exists within a social and biological context. Those contexts form legible patterns. Yes they can be overgeneralized, but they are far from irrelevant (if they are irrelevant, the social sciences and humanities are in deep deep trouble!) All organizations of human effort are built around predictable patterns that are simultaneously expressed as a shared culture. Sometimes organizational frameworks are imposed, other times they grow and reproduce organically, most often it’s a little of both. The reason Design Thinking, say, has any efficacy at all is because the process, which may start with interaction among anywhere from two to a few dozen individuals, yields results that extrapolate outward, that prove useful to a wide variety of people. One could argue that an original design only qualifies as an innovation if it is seen as useful and adopted by a wide variety of people unified by common human needs and/or wants.

        Another point is that humans do not exist outside of these functional frameworks of organization; they are not optional. We all operate within these cultural constraints and our identities are molded within them. While all organizations may have a certain resistance to change, as a history guy, I’d say that there are many, many historical examples of intercultural adaptation and what we call “leadership” is individuals who lead change by action and example. It doesn’t get the ink that open conflict and warfare do, but the history and legacy of intercultural cooperation and exchange is massive.

        An awareness of our individual empathetic limits is, perhaps, a necessary antidote to hubris, frustration or delusion. But I would not underestimate the value of each act of empathy, however small.

        Thanks, I’ve really enjoyed this exchange!

  3. Are either of you familiar with Alison Landsberg’s work on Prosthetic Memory?

    Her main argument is that empathy can be engendered in individuals through different cultural forms, and she uses case studies of film and museum exhibits. It is a work of cultural theory, but describes ways that museums have (USHMM permanent installation, for example) offer ways for visitors to take with them memories that they did not necessarily experience. And when those memories are impressed they become part of an individual’s personalized view of the world, and this creates greater empathy and understanding for others’ historical experiences.

    It’s another resource that I’m certain will be useful one way or another.

  4. I feel like this has likely been said already within the Dan-Suse thread, but I find the word ’empathy’ to be at the root of this issue. Inherently, mustn’t an institution have the capacity to put itself in its community’s shoes, so to speak, in order to empathize with it? Mustn’t a person or thing have similar qualities and experiences to the thing or person it is empathizing with? Wouldn’t empathizing without relating actually just be sympathizing? Perhaps I’m mincing words, here. But I feel like the solution might be very simple: better reflect the true population of the surrounding community through the makeup of the staff, volunteers and board.

    Great post, and great conversation!

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