We define empathy as active, not passive
As our friends at Mirriam-Webster assert:
"Empathy is the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present. without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner."
We center the concept of institutional empathy when analyzing museums today
The Empathetic Museum is a multinational, multi-ethnic, cross generational group of museum colleagues who believe that lack of empathy at an institutional level prevents museums from becoming truly inclusive and resonant with their communities. We maintain that museums’ non-empathetic and embedded systems of white privilege, colonialism, racism, and patriarchy must be dismantled before the widely touted objectives of DEAI (Diversity, Equity, Accessibility, Inclusion) can fully inhabit our institutions.
We maintain that institutional empathy is an antiracist response to inequity in museums
The concept of the Empathetic Museum was inspired in part by the response of African American museum professionals to the events in Ferguson, MO in 2014: the killing of an unarmed Black man, Michael Brown and the ensuing controversy when the White policeman who shot him was acquitted. At that time, as seen in the monthly Twitter chat #museumsrespondtoFerguson, most museums took the position that “this is not our issue.” The AAAM (Association of African American Museums) published a statement on their website extending condolences to the families of Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin, and others who had lost their sons to police violence. The organization urged its member museums to use their collections and programs to provide context and aid in understanding the history of systemic racism in the U.S. At the Missouri History Museum, education director Melanie Adams organized a town meeting.
We at the Empathetic Museum were struck by the difference in response between African American museum professionals and the rest of the (mostly White) museum field. To us, the African American response was rooted in profound empathy, in a deep understanding of the pain of the African American community. We also realized that if we in White-led museums saw this pain as “their issue,” all the DEAI initiatives in the world could not bridge this gap in empathy. Until we see these young people as “our sons and daughters” rather than “their sons and daughters” museums cannot become the inclusive and diverse institutions we say we want to be. Although we did not use the term “antiracist” at the time, the Maturity Model we built in 2015 and 2016 was, in retrospect, a project to transform museums from institutional racism to institutional empathy.
In his introduction to How to Be an Antiracist (2019) Ibram X. Kendi recounts his transition from a teen who was judgmental about the black community to someone who understands the humanity in all of us – a journey towards empathy.
"And I’ve come to see that the movement from racist to antiracist is ongoing—it requires understanding and snubbing racism based on biology, ethnicity, body, culture, behavior, color, space, and class….This book is ultimately about the basic struggle we’re all in, the struggle to be fully human and to see that others are fully human."
(Kendi, 2019. Pp 10-11)
More pertinent to this discussion, Kendi sees both racism and antiracism in systemic terms. True, they are practiced by individuals, but they are part of a web of policy and practice that renders them both less visible and more powerful.
"Racism is a powerful collection of racist policies that lead to racial inequity and are substantiated by racist ideas. Antiracism is a powerful collection of antiracist policies that lead to racial equity and are substantiated by antiracist ideas."
(Kendi p 20)
A call to action: We need more empathy, not less
What do we observe as our organizations confront their own complicity in systemic racism in a time of economic and cultural instability? We see museums produce statements in support of Black Lives Matter (ex. MET statement); while they maintain curatorial and upper level positions (mostly held by white staff) and lay off large percentages of education and visitor-facing staff (more likely to be people of color).
This is not empathy. This is not antiracist. It’s performance and a true reflection of the values of each organization laid bare for scrutiny. Why can’t more museums follow the lead of NPR (not a model of financial strength in the best of times)? Shared salary cuts and rotating unpaid furloughs, even for “star” reporters, have allowed many more staff to stay employed.
That said, it must be made clear that for those who find the word empathy empty or somehow lacking, antiracism is apt to fall flat, too. They both only hold meaning for those willing to be swayed by the values inherent to them. In this time of reckoning and self-reflection we encourage colleagues to use one of the self-assessments or rubrics provided by MASSAction or the Empathetic Museum
As you reassess your practice; and perhaps. reconsider the values that drive your priorities…. Where is empathy on that list?