The Incluseum has long-admired Gretchen Jennings’ writing and advocacy for the framework of the “empathetic museum.” But what is the Empathetic Museum and how can that idea be applied to current discourse surrounding diversity and inclusion in museums? This guest post is Part I of Jennings’ thoughtful two-part response to AAM’s newly released diversity and inclusion policy that we have recently highlighted on our blog. Our goal is to keep the dialogue going about the policy and creative paradigm shifts like the one elaborated on here by Jennings. We hope you will add your voice to this conversation as well!
How many of you were aware that, earlier this year, the AAM (American Alliance of Museums) Board published a new policy statement on diversity and inclusion? I somehow missed this, and so was grateful to find two recent posts by The Incluseum that provided insight and context for the policy. The Incluseum interviewed two AAM representatives who spearheaded the development of the policy and who are now involved in following up with the membership: William Harris, Senior Vice President of Development and Marketing at the California Science Center Foundation and Vice President of the AAM Board and Auntaneshia Staveloz, State and Community Partnerships Manager at AAM and Board Officer at the Association of African American Museums
In the two posts William and Auntaneshia answered questions, discussed the origins of the reformulated policy, and outlined the plans they have to move toward practical action within the Alliance and its member museums.
Auntaneshia observed that, in looking at all of the task forces, policy statements, publications, and other resources organized by AAM in relation to the question of diversity since the 1990’s “diversity and inclusion hadn’t gotten traction.” William recalled:
What we found over time was that it was very hard to get people to adapt…and, in large part, it was that people were having difficulty including diversity in their visioning goals. What I think AAM came to recognize was that, while philosophically, the institution was and is committed to diversity and inclusion, these goals weren’t being carried out as comprehensively within the organization and its membership as we would have liked. So the board established a new task force which I led and Auntaneshia staffed on behalf of AAM.
AAM has asked for responses to their call for action, an attempt to gather ideas about how museums and museum professionals think about inclusion and diversity and put them into practice. In response, I’d like to propose the framework of “the empathetic museum,” a concept I’ve been writing about for a couple of years now.
I think the framework of “institutional empathy” provides a way of looking at some of the reasons that diversity and inclusion “haven’t gotten traction.’ The framework might also provide direction for increasing diversity and inclusion in our museums.
Why do I use the word “empathy”?
“Empathy” is commonly thought of as an ability or a propensity to experience along with another person or group, whatever it is they are feeling; to be able to “put oneself in the shoes of” another. Usually this quality is thought of as belonging to a person. How can an institution, specifically a museum, be empathetic?
When I think of empathy in an individual I think of a quality that is fairly consistent. It is a state of being, a habit of mind. It is also a state of awareness of others –people are there and they matter. There is also a quality of reciprocity or two-sidedness about empathy; it connects the person to others, and vice versa. Because it is genuine, and really hard to fake, I think that empathy almost always elicits a response.
I believe that these qualities can inhere in an institution. It is not a matter of individuals in the museum being nice or kind (although I think most museum folks are) but rather that, by its mission statement and policies the institution has a consistent and genuine awareness of the community(ies) it serves and considers these communities as part of its civic responsibility.
The Outsourcing of Empathy
I worked in museums from the late 70’s until 2007, so much of my tenure occurred during the very years when Excellence and Equity and other statements regarding inclusion and diversity were first promulgated. What I saw happening in many museums, once their lack of diversity (in the 1980s and 90s diversity was defined very much in racial and cultural terms) was recognized, was that they created a new position, a community or outreach coordinator. This person was usually a person of color, most often a woman, and her role was to engage communities that had not been served by the museum, to bring them to the museum, and to create programs that would create and sustain a more diverse audience. The assumption appeared to be that the reason minority communities did not visit the museum was that they did not know about it. Once they heard about all of the great exhibitions and programs, they would come. And if admission fees were a problem, this could be addressed through special passes or programs, or perhaps even by a change to free admission. The reality is, minority groups do know about what is happening in museums; for one thing many members of minority communities work in museums. Museums (slowly but increasingly) have professional staff members from these communities and in many areas of the country most of the security, maintenance and service positions in museums have long been held by members of racial and ethnic minority groups. However, like the disparity in representation in museum staff, there is a disparity in museum visitorship and engagement from minority communities such as ethnic and racial minority groups. Why is this?
One reason is that the institution, that has been marketed to communities for years, is essentially the same as it has always been. Most often there has been little internal transformation of the organization – the board, administration, staff, and volunteers have remained mainly white and middle class. And thus visitors have too. The collections policies have not changed to include more artists of color, more women, more objects related to LGBT themes, etc. The museum might have an occasional exhibition of Latino art, or a program on African American inventors or scientists, and these might have drawn a more diverse audience for a time. But essentially our institutions have remained the same. With the best intentions in the world, I think we in museums tried to outsource empathy, placing it in the hands of an overwhelmed outreach coordinator or a temporary African American curator, or a Latino focus group leader. Lacking constancy, inner transformation, and a genuine change in our staffing, collections, and methods of operations, museums have not over the past 25 years communicated a message that their vibe is the vibe of all the differing communities that they wished to serve. And thus there has been little reciprocity. Let’s face it, the people know about our museums. But many do not feel comfortable and welcome there. Until the museum is internally transformed and its inner core beats with the heart of local communities (i.e. has truely not outsourced empathy) people will not come.
Part II of this post will address the qualities of an “empathetic museum” and how instituton may start down the path to become one. Stay tuned!
Gretchen Jennings is a museum educator, administrator, and exhibition project director who worked at the Smithsonian for almost 15 years. She was a project director or senior staff member on traveling exhibitions Invention at Play and Psychology, both receiving AAM awards of excellence. Since leaving SI in 2007 she has been Editor of the Exhibitionist, the journal of the National Association for Museum Exhibition (NAME). With an MA in History, specializing in European and African history, she has had a lifelong interest in cross cultural understanding and communication. For the past five years she has traveled to India every other year to teach museum studies to museum professionals in Kolkata (Calcutta). She blogs at Museum Commons.