...[C]itizenship—including the exercise of voting—is informed and fortified by our participation in public life and our contributions to the public imagination.
A recent article in Stanford Social Innovation Review by Deborah Cullinan of San Francisco’s Yerba Buena Center for the Arts highlights the connections between cultural participation, policy, and social change, and advocates for cultural institutions to envision and position themselves as leaders in this process of civic engagement. Cullinan explores the importance of civic engagement in driving imagination and supporting democracy in our communities. To facilitate these crucial connections, she argues, institutions must “radically reinvent” themselves as leaders in public life. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and other cultural institutions are using their programming to build cultural movements, influence policy, and address the major issues of the time.
It isn’t always smooth or easy, diversity is hard, but it creates a richer environment for everyone.
We were excited to learn recently of the work of the Erie Art Museum and their program Old Songs New Opportunities—a program that harnesses the talents of former refugees to share traditional songs in childcare centers. We were fortunate to communicate with Director of Education & Folk Art, Kelly Armor, who explained the timeliness and community resonance of the program as well as the program’s alignment with institutional goals:
“In 2003 the Erie Art Museum was designated a Regional Folk Art Support Center by the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts. This state-wide program designates particular non-profits in different regions of PA to provide basic infrastructure for traditional arts, basic fieldwork in identifying artists in one’s region, and assisting folk artists in perpetuating their traditions and creating more community access to folk art. As I got to know the refugee community here, and my experience working with early childhood I saw that both groups could really benefit from each other: Child cares don’t have enough staff who will freely sing with children (most Americans don’t grow up with a traditional sense of song and they feel they can’t sing) and they also are hungry for authentic multicultural curriculum. Refugee women need jobs and a path to figure out their identity in their new home.”
We asked Kelly to tell us a little about the challenges and opportunities that the museum faced in sustaining the program after its initial launch. Cultural differences and facilitating genuine cross-cultural understanding proved challenging, but ultimately rewarding for participants and the institution. Also, taking on larger social issues allowed the museum to address deep-seated community needs while improving the community as a whole—and promoting diversity and inclusion.
“Some of the trainings we’ve had some tense moments because different cultures do things differently and there are misunderstandings and judgements. But we’ve been able to use those ‘teachable moments’ to really create true cross-cultural understanding…. One huge challenge is that Pennsylvania, over the past 10 years, has had a major initiative to professionalize the childcare workforce. This has been, on the whole, a good thing. Many childcare teachers are getting much more training and are becoming better teachers. There are now powerful financial incentives for childcares to hire professional staff. Unfortunately the state is very narrow in their definition of qualifications and it is completely measured by whether you have a degree. Despite best practices saying it is best to have staff diversity, because of these new programs, staff has become much less diverse, and it has been much harder for women from our program to get jobs.”
Kelly’s comments helped illuminate the importance of consistent, sustained efforts to meet community needs, and the payoffs from strong alignment between stated program goals and values, and other aspects of museum programming and training:
“Our program is not exhibit related, but we have used OSNO in a variety of public programming that has been very successful. We regularly use OSNO graduates to assist with teacher trainings. We build entire workshops around their songs, cuisine, clothing, and child-rearing traditions for childcare providers…. We also have OSNO grads help with teacher workshops for K-12 educators where we can go more deeply into history, culture, and pedagogy.”
After assessing program outcomes, Kelly’s team worked to strengthen stated goals and make positive outcomes more self-sustaining. Their experiences speak to the importance of tracking and responding to performance measures, and of allowing an initiative to grow and evolve in response to new opportunities, needs, and setbacks.
“American childcare teachers LOVED our workshops. We often filled them to capacity. They loved learning about the cultures and meeting the OSNO grads. But we discovered that it wasn’t fundamentally changing their teaching practice. They might have done a lesson that used material they got from the training, and they certainly became more empathetic towards their own students from other cultures, but no one was singing more. We distributed CDs so they could learn the songs to use with children, but instead, they’d just play the CD. So, we sent OSNO grads as song coaches into every single classroom of the three largest childcare providers in the county. They worked with over 300 teachers in over 100 classrooms at 30 sites.”
The reciprocity of OSNO speaks strongly to the Empathetic Museum Maturity Model. In particular, genuine collaborations help museums achieve greater community resonance and stronger alignment between mission and institutional body language.
“Public programs have included OSNO graduates presenting their songs at our Blues and Jazz festival, and hosting World Refugee Day celebrations annually, and working them into our monthly family program. Some of our graduates are amazing artists, and I’ve been able to help them get grants to pass their traditions to capable apprentices and to purchase supplies. Some of them we hire to assist with tours. They tell stories and sing songs that connect with current exhibits.”
Refugees, to the general public, are pretty invisible. Unless you live in the poorest neighborhoods you don’t really have contact with them. Many visitors have told us how deeply grateful they are to witness the richness that they bring.
Kelly’s responses also reflect the challenge of sustaining community responsiveness with available resources. The Empathetic Museum Maturity Model advocates community connection, collaborative spirit, and civic leadership—buoyed by a core of institutional empathy. The OSNO program provides a great example of how a core of empathy can guide museums through the challenges and opportunities of responding to community issues, and making change that endures. Kelly’s comments reveal how empathetic practice produces noticeable benefits even when the fullest outcomes are not realized right away:
“All the supervisors reported that the song coach visits got every one singing, and all of them said, unequivocally, that it made their centers happier places. Singing lightened the mood, and teachers were using much less punitive discipline measures because children’s social behavior was better. Despite this, it takes work, and many teachers have probably stopped singing as much. I wish we could visit everyone every 6 months or so to teach them new songs and continue encouraging them.”
OSNO facilitates empathy at all levels of the program as well as between individuals, institutions, and the broader community:
“I often describe OSNO as a job training and culture preservation project but it is all about empathy. One OSNO grad said that the OSNO songs are like little passports, they open up doors that were previously closed…. The same woman who said the songs are like passport, who is from Palestine said, ‘When I sing to you, you can’t hate me.’ These songs are charming and disarming and now more than ever, we need both to be charmed and disarmed!”
OSNO also elevates the status of refugee and immigrant communities and enriches the non-refugee community, demonstrating institutional body language that champions diversity and cross-cultural understanding:
“Also, American teachers really respond to the OSNO song coaches as people. They have said to the OSNO grads, ‘I like learning the songs, but it really becomes meaningful knowing you.’ I remember one OSNO song coach describing life in a refugee camp and explained that the child that patiently waits in line will not get any food. She said she worked hard with refugee children to teach them to wait in line, but she did it gently as she understood that the child was simply using survival skills learned in the camp. I’ve heard lots of teachers retelling that story — it had a huge impact on them.”
Finally, in a recent post on the Center for the Future of Museums blog, John Vanco, Director of the Erie Art Museum, explained how the program benefits the institution, the participants, and the community, and bridges a critical service gap in the community:
“We do it because no other institution in our region is treating refugees as the cultural assets that they are. We do it because we’ve literally seen the lives of refugees change when they get jobs that honor their talents…. We have benefited from this work as well. We can boast excellent relationships with our refugee community, the social service agencies that serve them, and scores of child care programs. These relationships have generated new collaborations and an increase in tours. Former refugees and early childhood teachers who never would have considered visiting the museum are now part of our regular audience.”
Old Songs New Opportunities recently released a CD of 35 songs collected as part of the job training and sung in both the native languages and in English. Learn more here.
If you would like to recommend your own museum, or know of another institution engaged in empathetic practice, please contact us here. We want to know about your work! Watch this space for new honorees.
Learn more about OSNO:
Video by childcare partner about why they do the program: https://youtu.be/Wqx0cr3-T9w
Video about the teacher’s perspective on using OSNO songs: https://youtu.be/g6wmz9v_3e8
Museum Commons blogger Gretchen Jennings and other Empathetic Museum colleagues write in response to Museum Geek blogger Suse Cairns' question: Can institutions be empathetic?
Gretchen Jennings of Museum Commons shares updates on the Empathetic Museum project, detailing conference presentations, web and social media presence, case studies, and recent collaborations. Learn more about how the Empathetic Museum Maturity Model was developed, and how you can begin to apply its principles to your own work as empathetic museum practice becomes increasingly more urgent and essential. Read Gretchen's post here and share your thoughts on Twitter (@gretchjenn, @EmpatheticMuse, #empatheticmuseum).
By Janeen Bryant
At the end of 2014 Eastern State Penitentiary, a museum located near the heart of Philadelphia, created a program unlike any other in the history of the institution. Originally designed for silence and repentance, this site was fully functional from 1829 to 1971 through many transformations. After years exploring the history of incarceration, including stories of infamous prisoners such as Al Capone and the architectural innovations of the “wheel and spoke” housing model for inmates, the museum began to face a much more recent history. Serving as tourist attraction for thousands of visitors each year, the staff and board were increasingly concerned by the modern day experience of imprisonment in America.
The exhibit, Prisons Today, which opened this summer after three years of development, already demonstrates the museum’s commitment to ongoing dialogue with the efficacy of the U.S. prison system. They have dedicated considerable time, money and space to a deep examination of the Returning Citizen.
I was brought in as a consultant to assist ESP in their effort to incorporate authentic interpretation, relationship and evaluation into the process of hiring formerly incarcerated individuals. The staff had taken on the arduous task of naming mass incarceration as a key issue shaping the lives and outcomes of Americans. This issue is impacting every American with more than 2.3 million people in the United States prison system and more people incarcerated per capita than anywhere else in the world. However, the complexity of U.S. correctional systems reaches beyond the constraints of the jail cell. The lasting residue of a criminal record impacts education, voting rights and access to employment- ultimately creating multiple barriers to full citizenship. It’s an urgent and ubiquitous problem for any community, but particularly pressing in urban populations that tend to have notable concentrations of individuals who were formerly incarcerated. The institutional focus on the “returning citizen” was a small part of a larger goal in the examination of mass incarceration.
But this is uncharted territory for museums. Really uncharted. While many social service and policy organizations concentrate considerable effort to “reintegrate” formerly incarcerated individuals there are not too many museums that would touch this issue.
In an effort to authentically delve into the experience of modern day incarceration Eastern State Penitentiary boldly went where few museums have wandered. They envisioned a project co-facilitated and interpreted through the perspective of those who had the experience of incarceration firsthand.
The staff, prompted by a short term project grant seeking ambitious outcomes led by the project management of Lauren Zalut, was anxious to get started. However, there were a number of challenges to the project ranging from hiring protocols to shared authority. As an observer to the process and project consultant, the top of my list was battling implicit bias in staff language surrounding the project. The institution has been plagued by high turnover rate, even in paid docents. The need to share a common language about the project was vital to start the conversation and next steps. A second goal was to fearlessly name the key stakeholders and let them tell their own stories.
Eventually, three very specific questions arose in the search for alignment around empathetic engagement:
Shared Authority: Can we interrogate the narrative present in this site/museum? Are there ways to reach for inclusion of stories not previously heard/known that reflect the experiences of the crisis we have named?
For ESP this was a cautious process that took into consideration board, staff, volunteer and new hire perspectives on the project. This was not easy, requiring weeks of preparation and intentional tour preparations for the co-facilitator teams. The challenge also involved the current audience; visitor demographics were largely static: white, in their 30s and having never been incarcerated.
Shared Values: What grounds our work and belief that this experience is important?
This pilot program offered an opportunity to test an iterative process of tour co-creation and delivery that honored real individual experiences of incarceration. As a project consultant working with Eastern State Penitentiary as they piloted the program, I focused my efforts on avoiding the pitfalls of territorialism in storytelling. This is particularly important when the institution may be helping to create a window into heretofore unknown intimate details of an experience. Many Americans have never been incarcerated, but knowing the story of someone who is willing to share may help them build empathy and understanding.
Shared Experience: Can we do a tour experience that raises the awareness of all involved, while honoring the stories of the docents and visitors?
ESP defined success as follows: visitors leave feeling that they have understanding of multiple perspectives of the experience of incarceration. The museum was intentional in its pursuit of authentic engagement. Docents and co-facilitators trained, reviewed and evaluated their work as a group.
The questions raised were indicative of a profound shift in museum business as usual of blithely ignoring relevant issues in the community for the sake of the least expensive exhibit choices. Or choosing to turn away from tough topics in programing due to the insecurities of staff. Eastern State Penitentiary was in the midst of an emergent empathetic change. A new vision of their institution emerged from the social climate and rising awareness of mass incarceration. ESP crafted a new civic vision, facing head on the impact of mass incarceration in the U.S. with statistics AND stories. Their institutional body language profoundly shifted from telling a story “about” to telling a story “with” as they literally designed a co-facilitated experience that would honor multiple perspectives.
Check out the Maturity Model on this site to learn more about the stages of empathetic maturity. I’ve cited two key characteristics, civic vision and institutional body language- that reveal the emergent, yet critical nature of the work at ESP. As they shift to incorporate their learnings from this project into additional policy and practice ESP will be creating a bold model of empathetic advocacy and practices for institutions that have historically exploited the stories and experiences of those central to their sites. Use the link above to see the full rubric of The Empathetic Museum.
As is often the case when faced with choosing between status quo and choosing a new path to a greater truth, I think of Michelle Alexander’s response to the recent killing of Philando Castille. She acknowledges the difficulty of choosing the hard path towards systemic change. Alexander writes: But they knew they had to walk. If change was ever going to come, they were going to have to walk. And so do we.
Congratulations, Eastern State Penitentiary for taking the walk towards empathy.
Learn more about Eastern State Penitentiary's work here:
Lussenhop, J. (2016, May 11). Inside decaying US prison, former inmates are guides. BBC. http://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-36163247
McKeever, A. (2016, July 19). Eastern State Penitentiary and the Critique of Mass Incarceration. Pacific Standard. https://psmag.com/eastern-state-penitentiary-and-the-critique-of-mass-incarceration-c95d955dedfd