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Culture of Empathy Builder:  Gretchen Jennings

Creating the Empathetic Museum with Gretchen Jennings

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 "Exhibitionist," the 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."



The Empathetic Museum: Help Widen the Conversation by Gretchen Jennings

"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

Janeen Bryant, VP Education, Levine Museum of New South, Charlotte, NC, discusses empathy in her museum’s well-known approach to community building.

Margaret Middleton, Children’s Discovery Museum, San Jose, CA will address Family Diversity –same gender parents, single parents, mixed race, and adoptive families, in exhibits and programming.

Rainey Tisdale, Museums and Creative Practice will report on leading a local effort to collect and commemorate the Boston Marathon bombings one year later. Rainey blogs at CityStories.

Dana Mitroff Silvers, web strategy consultant and blogger at Design Thinking for Museums will discusses the “Design Thinking” process, an approach that begins with empathy

Kathy Gustafson-Hilton, of Hands-On! Inc will facilitate the Fish Bowl"


Creating the Empathetic Museum with Gretchen Jennings and Edwin Rutsch  


The Empathetic Museum: An Approach to Community Building. Janeen Bryan
Janeen Bryant is VP Education, Levine Museum of New South, Charlotte, NC.



Creating the Empathetic Museum with Margaret Middleton

Margaret Middleton 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 the Children’s Discovery Museum, San Jose, CA.


Building the Empathetic Museum with Human-Centered Design: Dana Mitroff Silvers
Dana Mitroff Silvers is a web strategy and implementation consultant and workshop facilitator with experience launching digital products in museums, nonprofits, and educational organizations. A theme in her current work is how mission-driven organizations can integrate principles of human-centered design into their practice.



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."


The Empathetic Museum: Institutional Body Language by Gretchen Jennings

"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 public."




Other 'The Empathetic Museum' Related articles:


Empathy as the starting point for innovation' By Dana Mitroff Silvers

"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 (, documents a partnership between SFMOMA and the 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 problem-solving..."


museum geek: On the paradoxes of empathy by Suse Cairns

"Recently empathy has become a topic hot for discussion in museum circles. Whether in Gretchen Jenning’s expressed frustration that many museums struggle to respond empathetically to traumatic community events as they happen, Regan Forrest’s discussion about the role of empathy in interpretation or Dana Mitroff Silver’s work on design thinking in 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."


Interpretive Empathy by Regan Forrest

"A recent posting by Gretchen Jennings on the Museum Commons blog 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:"



"There have been some fantastic conversations about museums, visitors, and empathy happening online lately (see here, here, here, and 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 more about the role that asking plays in empathy in these relationships.

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."