Can institutions be empathetic?

Posted on December 6, 2016

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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?

 

Posted in: Ideas, Questions