Interpretive Empathy

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


15 thoughts on “Interpretive Empathy

  1. I’ve wondered about Doering’s categories as well, especially in the context of the idea that museums should be forums, not temples. The client approach, which comes the closest to fitting into the forum idea, still doesn’t fit that well. The visitor is no longer subordinate, but the engagement between visitors and the museum is still presented as transaction, not interaction.

    I really like the idea of museums and their visitors as partners, but partnerships require agreement and effort (and empathy) from both sides. Most random visitors aren’t going to walk into a museum and automatically engage in a true, reciprocal partnership – that happens when there’s time to build trust. So perhaps we’re in the midst of a continuum – beginning as clients to our visitors, moving on to become compatriots, and eventually forming partnerships.

  2. Thanks for sharing Zahava’s article–I wasn’t familiar with this piece. Very recently I participated in training run by a major brand that attributes their success to a relentless focus on the GUEST. In explaining their preference for this term, they compared “guest” with “customer,” citing that a guest in your home is treated much more personally and warmly than a customer.

    While it is nice to be pampered and have your needs catered to, your post got me thinking about how being treated like a guest can still be a somewhat uncomfortable experience. Let’s say you are a guest in the home of someone you already feel a strong connection to (e.g., a close friend, family). You offer to help prepare food or wash the dishes–this is your way of wanting to not just return the generosity of your host but also become an equal participant in shaping the collective experience. You want to be more than a guest…but I don’t think “client” hits the nail on the head. Something more akin to “collaborator,” “team member,” or even “part of the family”?

    Katie makes a very good point that you must first build a genuine relationship with people before they can act as true reciprocal partners. Her idea of a continuum resonates well with me. The key point from both of you seems to be that we should try to treat museum visitors as whole persons–moving from shallow to deeper experiences as befits the nature of that individual’s relationship with your institution.

  3. I’m with Katie on discomfort with the transactional nature of the ‘client’ / ‘supplier’ (or whatever the other half is) and the implication that it has to be based on the metaphorical equivalent of money. You know: the idea that a free exhibition might actually be pre-judged as ‘and worth every penny’ because visitors don’t have a ticket price by which to evaluate quality.
    I think part of the conundrum is that there really is an assymetry in the relationship, however empathetic we might aim to be, in that we (curators, interpreters) are sharers AND custodians of information – facts – that our visitors not only don’t have (much) when they arrive, but are probably visiting on the expectation of being given that information. [OK, doesn’t apply to exhibitions based on opinions or beliefs, rather than facts]
    When we give a talk that goes well – especially one whose subject is fact-based – the relationship is clear and uncontroversial (and my experience is that there are currently growing, appreciative audiences for such talks); can’t exhibitions do the same thing, as long as they somehow ‘listen’ to audience reaction? It does require good audience targeting, of course … maybe part of the (philosophical?) problem here comes from trying to broaden exhibit audiences too much, and having to ‘hedge all bets’.

  4. Thanks for the thoughtful comments!

    As Dana says, “guest” can sometimes be a useful term in that it is warmer and does not imply a financial transaction (plus we tend to tidy the house if we’re expecting guests, something which could be translated to the way we maintain visitor facilities . . .) But the word does come with some baggage as well. Even if we don’t change the terminology we use, it’s worth unpacking what assumptions my be lurking within our language. And I say this as someone who has often been frustrated by critical discourses of the museum as a repository of hegemonic “power” – mainly because much of it tends to speak *for* the visitor in an abstracted sense rather than actually listening and watching what visitors say and do.

    I take John’s point that people come to museums because they expect museums to “know stuff”. That’s fine. I’m not saying museums shouldn’t “own” what they know. I think the distinction I’m trying to draw here is the difference between being a “know stuff” institution and an “know it all” institution. Museums can have authority through their collections and curatorial expertise but it’s arrogant to suggest that visitors won’t have compelling insights and important knowledge too – particularly of social topics.

    • I haven’t stopped thinking about Gretchen’s pop up session and since I work with an organization that makes museum exhibitions, I read your post with great interest, Regan. I was reminded of a process to develop a new interactive, family gallery for Telfair Museum of Art in Savannah a few years back and our discussion about their relationship with visitors. Here is a brief bit from the plan we wrote for them that can perhaps give others some food for thought, at least about that “know it all” museum perception (real or perceived).

      “Once the target audience was defined as 7-11-year-olds and their adults, we discussed the relationship between Telfair and its visitors in their new interactive gallery. How will the gallery relate to them, “speak” with them, seem to them? Is it an authority, a teacher, a peer? Given the target audience and the desire that they be offered open-ended questions and have their own thoughts
      about art respected, the ArtZeum needs to have a strong, social, inviting relationship that asks as much as it answers. The team defined three words to describe the ArtZeum’s relationship with the visitor: Enthusiastic, Provocative and Revelatory.

      Assuming that relationship is enthusiastic, provocative and revelatory, what kind of “personality” does this space need to exude in order to bring that relationship about? To attract the target audience to the complex subject matter of art on an accessible yet challenging level, the ArtZeum would be: Inspiring,
      Intriguing and Distinctive.

      The core purpose of the interactive exhibition’s content: to increase people’s access to and relationship with art—what it is, why people make it and why it is valued. More importantly, the exhibition will help people discover how some simple skills can help them delve more deeply and gain a greater understanding of art and its role in world culture. This foundational idea was summed up by the team in a single “Main Message”: Art matters! No matter who you are, you can have a meaningful experience with art.”

      There were lots of activities that encouraged visitors to express their opinions, based on helpful insights from the museum. After all, they base their opinions on a lot of knowledge, but they were OK making room for others and their opinions. Not “we are the ultimate authority,” but “we’d like to help you learn more, too.”

      I’m not sure what title you would put on that relationship, but I’m certain it involves a great deal of respect.

  5. Hi, Regan, thanks for taking the concept of the “empathetic museum” to the interpretive arena. I’m hoping to write more about this as well as other aspects of empathy in upcoming posts. It just makes sense that if a museum is truly empathetic at its core, all that it does will reflect this – the inclusiveness of its collections, the audience-friendly character of its exhibitions and programs, the diversity of its staff, etc. The response to outside crises, as discussed in my recent post, is perhaps an extreme and infrequent example; yet I think it does communicate that the community is more than a client or a guest when museums reach out like this. Thanks for picking up this conversation and carrying it forward.

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  11. If I may, a someone who develops empathy in both young adults and adults, I believe you are making things too complicated for yourselves.

    The simple facts are that you cannot be empathetic to every person that attends – impossible. What you can do however, is divide your attendees in ’empathetic propensities’ which is essentially four groups based on age 0-16, 17-40, 40-60 & 61+

    These groups already have distinct and specific inbuilt levels of empathy so it would be both empathetic (to consider their group needs) and simpler to write or design for each group.

    Please do not over complicate matters as everyone tends to do!

    Lastly, the dictionary definition of empathy is actually useless in the real world. What you need is a pragmatic version and that I offer you in the Empathy Pryamid


    • Hi David,

      Thanks for commenting and thanks for the link. I couldn’t see anything there I would take issue with, and to my mind it is putting forward a very similar argument, just in a different context. So I’m not sure what you mean by overcomplicated – I wonder if we’re speaking slightly at cross purposes? I should also point out this discussion has also moved on a bit since this post was first written – for instance see

      I’ll take it as given that we can’t be empathetic to everyone on an individual level. However museums (I’m sure like many other institutions) can sometimes get wrapped up so much in their own terms – what THEY want to say, what THEY think is important, that we need to see how we can take step back and look at things from an audience’s point of view. That’s the kind of empathy I’m getting at. But empathy means different things to different people, which is why we sometimes end up getting caught up in semantics.

      Finally, I’m intrigued by your age categories of empathetic propensity. It makes intuitive sense that one becomes more empathetic with age (with more life experience we can appreciate more the experiences of others) – assuming this is what you mean. However I’m not sure I can agree that age is the ONLY important variable, which is what I think you’re implying. I’d be curious about the evidence for this. On what basis were these categories defined?

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