Gretchen Jennings is a longtime museum professional, having
worked as an educator, administrator, and exhibition project director in a
variety of museums - art, history, and science. She is currently editor of
journal of the National Association for Museum Exhibition. She has been
advocating for and
writing about the The Empathetic Museum. In our dialog, Gretchen shared
her vision for the Empathetic Museum and what that entails.
She writes, "I was thinking about institutional body
language when the word empathy first occurred to me in connection with
museums some time ago. Empathy, the experience of feeling with and not
just for another, requires a strong core, a sense of self that can dare to
be open to the experience of others. I think of the truly empathetic
person as one whose inner and outer expressions of compassion are
consonant with each other.
Institutions have an inner core, an identity; and they can
also manifest a kind of body language – messages that come through loud
and clear even when the mission statement, website, and marketing
materials say something different. An institution that is not at its core
truly visitor-centered, dedicated to inclusion, and committed to its
community cannot, in my view, attract and retain the new and diverse
audiences it may say it wants."
"Following up on June 7 and June 29 posts on empathy in
museums, six museum colleagues from a variety of areas in the field are
proposing a session called “The Empathetic Museum” for the May 2014
American Alliance of Museums Conference in Seattle, WA. I’m one of the
panelists, so this is a shameless plea for your support. Since some of
my posts on empathy have been the most viewed in this blog’s history I’m
thinking that this topic resonates with the readership and that you’ll
endorse giving attention to this topic at AAM."
“Starter Fish” discussants Gretchen Jennings, blogger at Museum Commons, introduces idea of
The Empathetic Museum
is a designer, craftsperson, and artist with a passion for designing and
creating beautiful, functional spaces, unique props, and imaginative
costumes. She was an
Exhibit Designer at theChildren’s Discovery Museum, San Jose, CA.
The Empathetic Museum: A "Pop-Up" Conversation
by Gretchen Jennings "What is “The Empathetic Museum”? A group of 10 colleagues
stopped by to share their thoughts in room 311, “Unconference Room" at the
Baltimore Convention Center during the recent meeting of the American Alliance
of Museums (AAM). A few days before the conference AAM announced that there
would be a white board outside room 311, and the schedule for “Pop-Up Sessions”
would be built on a first come first served basis. I got there in time to
reserve Monday morning at 8:45, and met a group of museum colleagues- some
familiar and some new- to examine this idea. Janeen Bryant of the Levine Museum
of the New South and Joanne Jones-Rizzi of the Science Museum of Minnesota and I
had proposed a session on this topic back in August, but it wasn't accepted for
the mainstream conference program."
"Since my last post, on the pop-up discussion about The
Empathetic Museum at the American Alliance of Museums conference, Regan Forrest
of the blog Interactivate has picked up on this theme and examined it from the
perspective of interpretation and design. Her posts are well worth reading, and
have generated more widespread discussion on this concept.
Her discussion of
Dana Mitroff Silvers' presentations on Design Thinking, which Silvers says
begins with empathy, was especially interesting. These conversations are
building a description of empathy in museums that is rich and multifaceted,
encompassing the ways in which museums communicate their collections to the
"One of the core principles of design thinking is its focus on
human values at every stage of the process. And empathy for the people for whom
you’re designing is fundamental to this process. A few weeks ago, I stumbled
upon an “Empathetic Listening Booth” at the Berkeley Farmer’s Market in
Berkeley, CA, where I live. Living in Berkeley, I’m used to seeing all sorts of
er, interesting things at the local farmer’s market, but this one really caught
my eye with its use of the term “empathy.""
Design Thinking for Visitor Engagement: Tackling One Museum’s Big
Challenge through Human-centered Design
by Dana Mitroff Silvers, web strategy consultant and blogger
"This paper, co-authored by the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (SFMOMA) and
the teaching team of the course “Design Thinking Bootcamp” at Stanford’s Hasso
Plattner Institute of Design (d.school), documents a partnership between SFMOMA
and the d.school in Fall 2012. For this partnership, a class of
multidisciplinary graduate students took on a design challenge for SFMOMA and
prototyped innovative, divergent solutions following the design thinking
process. In this paper, we will share the stories of the students’ process and
insights, provide examples of the prototypes they developed, and discuss the
impact the project had on the museum’s approach to collaborative
"Recently empathy has become a topic hot for discussion in museum
circles. Whether inGretchen
Jenning’s expressed frustrationthat
many museums struggle to respond empathetically to traumatic community events as
they happen, Regan Forrest’s discussion about the role of empathy ininterpretationor
Dana Mitroff Silver’s work ondesign
museums, empathy is having a moment. The thing is, I’m not sure I fully
understand empathy or the role it can play in institutional processes, so I’ve
decided to explore the subject in a little more depth."
"A recent posting by Gretchen Jennings on theMuseum
has got me thinking about empathy, and the role it plays in interpretation.
Gretchen was writing mostly in the context of how museums (can fail to) respond
empathetically to traumatic events in the local community. But I want to broaden
the concept out and assert that empathy is essential for good interpretive
practice full stop. Back in 1999 Zahava Doering identified three main ways that
museums could relate to their audiences:"
EMPATHY AND THE ART OF ASKING
- Museums Askew
"There have been some fantastic conversations about museums, visitors,
and empathy happening online lately (seehere,here,here,
These are compelling discussions, looking at the ways museums
demonstrate compassion, and the reciprocity and generosity that can
exist between institutions and visitors. And they’ve left me thinking
role that askingplays
in empathyin these
Empathy is inherently an act of giving. But it’s also one of asking.To
empathize is to try and connect to someone else through understanding.
And this is where I think some museums can be more successful at
empathizing – by first being open and asking those we want to empathize
with to let us in.""
Breaking assumptions with empathy Susan Spero,
"While I think I am pretty good at being empathetic, by not talking
directly with users—in this case, my students themselves! —I had
overlooked some critical aspects of the student orientation experience.
One of the key insights seems obvious in retrospect: students need more
structured socialization activities during orientation so that they can
connect more deeply with each other. The students’ solutions to this
need offered some simple yet powerful changes to orientation that will
have a big impact on the students’ experience."