An “empathy deficit” in society is, according to some, behind a lot of the social ills we’re all hearing about…increasing political polarization, bullying in school, isolationist perspectives, etc. Many see the potential for museums to help answer this deficit. In ‘the Urgency of Empathy and Social Impact on Museums‘, writer Mike Murawski makes a strong case for how museums can leverage their current place in society to harness their full potential as agents of positive social change.
The American Alliance of Museum’s Centre for the Future of Museums Trendswatch 2017 report features a compelling article on the role of empathy in museums. At the world’s first Empathy Museum, it features an exhibit called ‘A Mile In My Shoes’ where visitors literally walk in someone else’s shoes while listening to an audio story of their life. Housed in a giant shoebox, the collection includes over 150 pairs of shoes and related stories – and has reached over 10,000 visitors. Visitors can also access the audio stories online, allowing the message to reach further.
In June 2010, Brene Brown presented a TED talk in Houston that gained over 32M views. As a research professor on vulnerability at the University of Houston, she writes about empathy as a vulnerable choice “…because to connect with others, you have to connect with something in yourself that knows that feeling.” In this respect, there may be nothing more vulnerable than to love openly with a full heart. The Museum of Broken Relationships explores love and loss. Visitors donate artifacts from a breakup to the museum with a short story or associated memory. Walking through the museum, it’s hard to not see glimpses of past relationships in your own life reflected in the objects around you. In that way, the human experience of love and loss seems for just a moment, not as singular as it might sometimes feel.
The role of technology in society is complex. On one hand, technology-enabled experiences can virtually put visitors in the shoes of other people, immersing them in experiences designed to trigger an empathetic response. On the other hand, the prevalence of screen-based experiences in daily life have been blamed for anti-social behaviors, isolationist mindsets and siloed perspectives. As we intentionally seek to create technology-enabled exhibits that promote positive social change, we are challenged to consider how the medium of technology has the power to change the message. Teams at SIAT at Simon Fraser University and The Pain Lab are leading research to better understand the role of Virtual Reality as a tool for healing. Working with the SIAT team, we are exploring the role of VR to extend beyond the world of entertainment, to promote empathy in the cultural space.
Empathy in service of positive change is at the core of why we work in the cultural space. Only through putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes and imagining their feelings and perspective can we extend beyond our own biases. This action helps us take empathy from a buzzword to a fundamental part of the human experience that cannot be ignored. Technology’s role to promote empathy will continue to be debated, but cannot not be ignored. I’m looking forward to seeing how this word changes from a trend into a way of thought that is integrated with the world around us and the work we do to share that world with each other.