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:
- As strangers: the museum’s primary responsibility is to the collection; any public obligation is fulfilled grudgingly: “The public, while admitted, is viewed as strangers (at best) and intruders (at worst). The public is expected to acknowledge that by virtue of being admitted, it has been granted a special privilege” (Doering, 1999, p.75). They might be a dying breed these days, but we all know those museum professionals who think the museum would be a whole lot better than all those visitors messing up the place.
- As guests: museums take responsibility for their visitors and want to provide them with beneficial experiences. “This “doing good” is usually expressed as “educational” activities and institutionally defined objectives. The visitor-guests are assumed to be eager for this assistance and receptive to this approach” (ibid, p.75). It could be argued that these museums have well-meaning but ultimately paternalistic views towards their visitors. The implicit assumption is that we know best and are smarter than the average visitor.
- As clients: the museum’s primary responsibility is to be accountable to the visitor. “The visitor is no longer subordinate to the museum. The museum no longer seeks to impose the visit experience that it deems most appropriate” (ibid, p. 75).
When Doering wrote this in 1999, she suggested that most museums were in a “guest”- style relationship with their audiences. While social and technological developments have changed the nature of the museum-visitor relationship since, the “guest” mode probably still prevails. So what does this have to do with empathy?
Well, I think it boils down to relating to visitors as fellow human beings. Unless we are genuinely interested in our visitors as people – their backstories, their worldviews, their life experiences, then how can we expect them to become engaged with us? Engagement is a two-way street and we should want to connect to visitors as much as we want them to connect with us. I enjoy talking to visitors. It’s one of the things that attracted me to visitor research, and I love going to presentations by other researchers who clearly share this empathy for the audiences they interact with.
If there is a barrier to engagement, perhaps it’s because we’re being too clever for our own good. Those of us who work in museums are part of the community, not apart from it. If we see ourselves as somehow separate, then that’s inevitably going to translate into how we go about doing our job – we’ll default to “guest-mode” thinking.
When I’m thinking about interpretive empathy, I’m not sure if the “client” model that Doering described is quite what I’m getting at. I’m wondering if it’s more of a “compatriot” mode, but I’m not entirely happy with that term either. What do you think?
Doering, Z. D. (1999). Strangers, Guests, or Clients? Visitor Experiences in Museums. Curator: The Museum Journal, 42(2), 74–87. doi:10.1111/j.2151-6952.1999.tb01132.x