Empathy & Museums

My immediate impression after the first full day of the Washington, DC seminar is that this will be a time that is going to challenge me physically and emotionally. While touring the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAACH), I was overcome with emotion reading stories and hearing voices that are, in many ways, so far removed from what I am accustomed to. I have had many history lessons about the African American experience, but I have never had such an eye-opening experience in my life. 

In listening to Gretchen Jennings talk about the Empathetic Museum, I believe that rush of emotion that I felt was a thoughtful and intentional move on NMAAHC’s part. As a naturally empathetic person, I absolutely appreciate this effort. As a museum professional, I would love to be able to sharpen my skills at creating empathy in others. I believe that following the Empathetic Museum Maturity Model and looking at NMAACH for inspiration are fantastic ways to start. There are quite a few things that I will be taking away with me from both today’s museum trip and the lecture, including a reminder to myself to be more aware of the sometimes sensitive nature of interpretation, but also an important lesson in how powerful that interpretation can be, even with difficult subjects. Objects, like the wreckage of slave ships (pictured above), are so much more engaging when they are accompanied by the words of a person who experienced these events. While we may certainly intend to take away an educational experience when we leave museums, I believe that a lesson here is that emotions can be used to intensify that experience, hopefully leaving a lifelong impression.