We Can’t Outsource Empathy Part II: Qualities of the Empathetic Museum

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 II 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! To read Part I of Jennings’ guest post click here.



A sampling of the many pairs of running shoes left in Copley Square after the Boston Marathon Bombings in April, 2013. From “Dear Boston: Messages from the Marathon Memorial,” an exhibition created within one year by local museum professionals to help community healing. Photo by Tiffany Locke.

 The Qualities of an Empathetic Museum

Institutions that are empathetic with regard to their audiences and communities have:

  • Civic vision: the imagination to see the institution as a part of and not apart from the larger community, a player with status and responsibilities in the civic arena.

Evidence:  In addition to links with other area cultural institutions, museum cultivates links with a broad range of civic organizations, from city or town officials, police force, school and library leaders, to churches and community organizations.

  • A habit of mind: a persistent orientation to its community, such that whatever is happening in the community (whether or not it is related to museum type or collection) is of interest (and is considered to be legitimately of interest) to the institution and is taken into consideration in its planning and activities.

Evidence:  On a continuing basis, as a matter of policy and planning the museum administration and staff are on top of social, economic, and other issues of concern in the community; in case of a crisis, like the marathon bombings in Boston; the devastation of Hurricane Sandy on the East Coast; or the entry of thousands of unaccompanied children on the Mexican border, the museum examines what role it might play in helping address the crisis.

Painting by folk artist Cenia Gutierrez Alfonso from Cuba depicting a child crossing the Atlantic on her own with her beloved gallo (rooster) in hand. One of a series of images and activities in the Museum of International Folk Art’s “Gallery of Conscience,” which addresses issues of current concern and encourages conversation about them. Photo by MIFA, Santa Fe, NM.

Painting by folk artist Cenia Gutierrez Alfonso from Cuba depicting a child crossing the Atlantic on her own with her beloved gallo (rooster) in hand. One of a series of images and activities in the Museum of International Folk Art’s “Gallery of Conscience,” which addresses issues of current concern and encourages conversation about them. Photo by MIFA, Santa Fe, NM.

  • Timeliness:  Because the museum has planned ahead, and has a consistent orientation to connections with its diverse audiences, it is able to respond in a timely fashion when a crisis (almost by definition something that is not anticipated) occurs.

Evidence: As part of its disaster plan, the museum includes planning for reaching out to its community once the safety of its own staff and collections is in hand.  As an example from the library field, the New York Public Library tweeted after Hurricane Sandy that, as each of its facilities had power restored, it would be open for shelter, warmth, water, charging of devices.  And they extended the loan period for overdue books!

  • Reciprocity: strong and trusted connections with all the diverse (and often neglected) aspects of the community, in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, socio-economic status.

Evidence:  A consistent policy of inclusive hiring of board, staff, and volunteers, people who resemble the larger community (in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, SES); a consistent pattern of seeking counsel and advice from diverse groups–especially those not well represented on staff and board–in institutional planning, marketing, development of exhibitions, programs, and social media.

  • Awareness of how they are perceived: This is contingent on having strong connections within diverse communities that can convey often unexpressed feelings and attitudes, especially of those less likely to visit, toward this specific museum and toward museums in general.

Evidence: The museum has a sense of its own institutional body language –  unspoken messages that can be communicated to the public by images or cultural symbols like flags, colors,  graphics, gestures,  clothing, etc., that convey unintended meanings. It is also aware of the potential for well-intended attempts to communicate with new audiences to be viewed with distrust or assessed as tokenism.  The museum is therefore careful to include people familiar with cultural symbols in areas like marketing and the planning of exhibitions and programming.


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.


  1. David Carr · · Reply

    As a quality of all dialogue, reciprocity implies flow between partners. When a museum summons the living culture of its community to be present, it offers a generative, even a provocative, invitation to offer a part of itself. The museum reciprocates with public respect and a certain understanding of who owns the practices and values of the community and who gathers its traces. These are also aspects of gift-giving, a concept that ought to guide our institutions when engaged in a conversation.

  2. […] Gretchen Jennings offers more detailed ideas about museum ethics, using the phrase “empathetic museum.” Jennings says that empathetic museums include the following traits: They see themselves as part of a larger community, with related responsibilities to that community. They persistently take this role into account, planning accordingly and responding to audiences in a timely manner. These “audiences” are defined not as traditional museum-going audiences, but as all of the diverse members of the community, and the museum plans for inclusivity in staffing as well as visitorship. (For a full list of the qualities of an empathetic museum, see Jennings’ post on the Incluseum blog.) […]

  3. […] AAM’s newly released diversity and inclusion policy, the Incluseum featured guest posts (Part 1, Part 2) from Gretchen Jennings, a museum consultant and founder of the Empathetic Museum. In both posts, […]

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