Empathy is in our DNA.
"We have been on a continuous and conscientious journey toward being an empathetic organization for the past ten years – In the past decade, our major first step was the reinstallation of all of our collection galleries of Art, History and Natural Sciences (90,000 square feet in total) with the explicit goal to create welcoming, accessible, and relevant experiences for our very diverse audience. More recently, we have embraced programming that is designed to be responsive to urgent, vital issues – often with direct Oakland connections, but with broader national implications, and often highlighting current topics within their compelling historical contexts. This approach was most in evidence with our recent major exhibition, "All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50," linking the founding of the Black Panther Party in Oakland in 1966 with current issues of racial inequity and Black Lives Matter."
"This journey hasn’t been without its challenges. Early on, with the reinstallation of our galleries, we definitely had some staff resistance to our approaches and had to make difficult decisions about leadership for these projects – including replacing some key positions. At this point, I believe our staff knows what they’re signing up for when they join the Museum and most of the nay-sayers are no longer employed here, either by their own choice or with encouragement for them to find a better fit. Having true employee commitment to this kind of work is essential and that definitely means making some hard decisions."
OMCA has also become an advocate for their community as they show Timeliness and Sustainability by reacting to political changes that directly impact their visitor:
"Beyond temporary exhibitions, our Gallery of California History has many moments linking current issues with historical moments. Most notably, we recently reinstalled the section of the gallery devoted to the Japanese American internment when a specific ethnic group was singled out for persecution, and have linked this tragic moment in our nation’s history with Trump’s call for a “Muslim Ban.” Similarly, we have a section of the gallery titled “History Now” where we linked the Syrian Refugee Crisis to the refugee crisis that took place in the wake of the fall of the Ottoman Empire close to 100 years ago. In this same space, we recently made links between the Dakota Access Pipeline and the genocide of Native people in California."
OMCA links their collection to topics that directly impact their visitors. The process of highlighting these sensitive historical facts while connecting them to Oakland and the museum collection places importance on our actions as U.S citizens, while bringing awareness to these issues that affect people within their community. OMCA utilizes “Soft Power” in exhibition and display by providing questions for visitors to consider on the nature of the exhibition and the world’s social climate; questions that link previous historical instances to contemporary political actions. This quality in a cultural institution is imperative. It informs visitors that the institution accepts its community, accepts diversity, and will be a supporter of and for them.
Lori expressed to us how she works with the Oakland community to better serve them through museum efforts. She illustrates core messaging that the museum stands by, and how she implements that in physical expression throughout the museum:
"One of the real hallmarks of OMCA’s work is direct engagement of communities in all aspects of our exhibitions and programming. We often think of our work with communities in the spectrum of three 'C’s' – consultation, collaboration, and co-creation. We are always consulting with community members and leaders as well as with visitors as we test and prototype ideas. For the Black Panthers exhibition, we consulted with dozens of former Black Panthers, writers, artists, scholars, law enforcement representatives and current activists and community leaders.
On the co-creation spectrum, we presented an exhibition last summer called, 'Oakland…I want you to know,' which focused on issues of gentrification in a rapidly transforming neighborhood in Oakland. This exhibition was completely co-created with community members and organizations, facilitated by a social practice artist, Chris Treggiari. The visitor responsive was, again, truly remarkable. One visitor responded:
'I like this exhibit. It’s very Oakland-centric and I live here. We are members of this community. I like to see other people’s opinions…I’m proud I live here. I chose to live here because of the diversity and the different kinds of things you can find here. I’ve been here for years and it’s changed a lot. I feel a lot of the community – the pain and pride – in this exhibit.'
So, our visitors themselves respond with empathy."
"I’ll acknowledge here, however, that some of our long-standing supporters and volunteers – who represent more "traditional" museum audiences – have raised questions about the topics of exhibitions, the perspectives they represent, and our focus on hyper local issues. I’ve had a number of people ask me: "Are we a museum or a community center?" And my answer is – YES! We remain dedicated to our collections, to serious research and scholarship for our exhibitions, and to presenting outstanding artwork and artifacts – AND to placing the community at the center of the experience. It’s just that our definition of "community" has changed to be much more inclusive and to reflect a commitment to equity. For some more traditional supporters, however, this can almost been seen as our diminishment of our commitment to "their" community. It is a constant balancing act that requires nuance, humility and, hopefully, generosity."
We also asked Lori how reality aligned with her initial expectations for this new approach, and she responded that the overwhelming response from visitors was to welcome the connections and to embrace the opportunity to participate and add their own voices.
"For example, in the History Now exhibit section related to Native rights and sovereignty, we ask the question: "How is what happened at Standing Rock different – or the same – as what happened in the 1800s?" This question not only elicits responses from our visitors, but also ignites conversations on post-it-notes and index cards between them. Similarly, the section in the History Gallery on the Great Depression asks a series of questions related to income inequality, organized labor, workers’ rights – and the power of art to create empathy – to which our visitors enter into whole conversations on the walls of the gallery."
In this, OMCA provides opportunities for visitor engagement, discussion and contemplation. Museum acknowledgement and instigation is key. OMCA is an “Anchor Institution”, as it has become a safe space for visitors, and even encourages visitors to explore their opinions publicly and with one another. It also provides a literal safe space to share with the community:
"While OMCA has developed and presented dozens of programs and initiatives that I would consider to embody empathy, I believe these initiatives are more profound than ever before, and certainly feel very different to me today than they did even a few months ago. To be precise, the change took place on November 8th, 2016. Our community is hungry now for places to come together, to celebrate diversity, and to have our faith in humanity restored. We produce a weekly evening festival – Friday Nights @ OMCA – that attracts thousands of people to the Museum each and every Friday night with food trucks, live music, family activities, and a full range of programming. I had a visitor tell me after the election that our Friday Nights feel like an act of revolution.
Lori let us know that the museum continues its effort to remain sustainable as it works on a new "social impact statement", something that articulates the "so what?" of their work. While its current iteration is still being road-tested by staff, Board and community members, it stands as this: "OMCA contributes to a more caring and equitable Oakland."
Lori provided some feedback she received on behalf of the museum's new empathetic efforts, which prove to be her Performance Measurements.
"We do LOTS of visitor evaluation at OMCA – regularly monthly data collection about our visitors and visitor satisfaction, and specific evaluation of exhibitions and programs. Two statistics, I think, say a lot about the success of our initiatives. For the Black Panther exhibition, 62% of the audience members were people of color and an astounding 97% of visitors were observed having a conversation with another visitor in the gallery. So, new audiences came together – and they connected. The average length of time visitors spent in the exhibit was 58 minutes – about 3 times the average national dwell time for an exhibit. More than the statistics, I think this quote from a visitor also says it all:
"It was an incredibly potent example that we’re having the same conversation now in 2016 that they were having in 1971. So much of this exhibit is a re-manifestation today of exactly the stuff that they were dealing with then and has not changed…I think that was to me, personally, one of the most potent parts of the exhibit. I love the history. It really made me think. The Black Panthers – what they wanted – is what we still need. It was really powerful."
This is what we’re striving to achieve – the transformative experience for our individual visitor that then becomes a collective sense of connection, caring, and sometimes even a call to action.