“Fostering Empathy Through Museums” now available for pre-ordering…

Fostering Empathy Through Museums

I am happy to announce that Fostering Empathy Through Museums a volume that includes fifteen thought-provoking case studies contributed by experienced museum professionals from a variety of museums (from animal sanctuaries to art museums), is now available for pre-ordering:



Happy Earth Day!


In honor of the Earth Day, I would like to share an excerpt from my introduction to “Fostering Empathy Through Museums” (forthcoming by Rowman & Littlefied, August 2016) – Illustration by: Fatih Mehmet Durmus, 2016:

“Sixteen years into the millennium, this is not a particularly proud moment for humanity. Having visibly altered our planet’s outermost layers, scientists are debating whether our footprint is worthy of naming an entire geological epoch on Earth’s billions of years old timescale after ourselves: Anthropocene, the Age of Humans. Poverty, injustice, famine, radicalism, war, and a lack of human rights thrive in countries around the world.

A steady proliferation of new and ever more powerful technological tools seems unable to correct these ills. One must wonder why they have not succeeded. I believe it is because the tools that are at our disposal are most beneficial when filtered through a worldview that values the collective wellbeing of the “Whole” –our unified humanity and the planet, inclusive of all living beings as well as its life-supporting natural resources.

Such a unifying worldview cannot be attained and sustained without empathy: our inherent ability to perceive and share the feelings of another. Empathy enables us to connect with ourselves, and with others while awakening us to our connectedness as parts of a greater Whole. An awareness of our connectedness calibrates and harmonizes our values, attitudes, and behavior. Awe of, and appreciation for, this interdependent Whole inspires us to meaningfully engage with it through acts of compassion and altruism that, recent scientific findings reveal, are like “chocolate” to us. Not only are we wired to connect, but also to find ways to serve towards the greater good. This phenomenon is a self-sustaining cycle: powered by empathy, leading to compassion, altruism, and a rewarding sense of fulfillment of our humanity.”

“Empathetic Museums, Empathetic Schools” a presentation by Dr. Emlyn Koster, and Dr. Elif Gokcigdem – Newseum, Washington, D.C. (April 9, 2016)


On the invitation of Dr. Emlyn Koster, Director of North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences (former director of the Liberty Science Center, NY), and Donna Gaffney, DNSc, FAAN (Chairperson, For Action Initiative; Advisory Board Member (2002-2012), Families of September 11), I’ve had the privilege of sharing the platform with Dr. Koster to present the concept of “empathy-building through museums” at the Newseum in Washington, D.C. on Saturday, April 9, 2016. The presentation titled “Empathetic Museums, Empathetic Schools” was hosted as part of the Newseum Teacher Open House, celebrating the inauguration of their new online curriculum “Freedom in the Balance,” which is based on the original curriculum developed by the For Action Initiative and the Liberty Science Center in the aftermath of 9/11. 700 teachers from Washington, D.C. area signed up for the open house, and the empathy-building through museums presentation reached nearly 300 people. For more information regarding this presentation please contact: greatolivetree@gmail.com

“How to Cultivate Global Compassion” an interview with Paul Ekman by Jill Suttie, GGSC


I am excited to share this post from the Greater Good Science Center: http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/paul_ekman_global_compassion

It is the first time I have come across the term “distal compassion” which is eloquently explained by legendary psychologist Paul Ekman during an interview with GGSC’s Jill Suttie, where they discuss Ekman’s book: “Moving Toward Global Compassion.”

The term “distal compassion” also encapsulates the essence of what my upcoming book: “Fostering Empathy Through Museums” stands for, as it promotes the need for a “unifying worldview” which can be developed through the cultivation of empathy through museums: https://greatolivetree.wordpress.com/2015/09/25/announcing-an-upcoming-book-fostering-empathy-through-museums/

Paul Ekman explains in his interview with Suttie how he started seeing empathy under a different light after his conversations with Dalai Lama –such an inspiring convergence of science and wisdom! I would like to conclude this post with Rumi, another source of timeless wisdom which has much to offer to our humanity:

“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,

there is a field.

I will meet you there.

When the soul lies down in that grass, the world is too full to talk about.

Ideas, language, even the phrase each other doesn’t make any sense…” –Rumi*

*Coleman Barks, Open Secret (Putney, Vermont: Threshold Books, 1982).

**Illustration by Fatih M. Durmus. Copyright: 2016 by Elif M. Gokcigdem (Ed.), Fostering Empathy Through Museums, Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield, illustration by Fatih M. Durmus

Oreos, Empathy, and Museums –A Knotty Situation!

My teenage daughter came over with a puzzled look on her face: “Mommy, did you hear that Oreos now come in ‘Cookies & Cream’ flavor?” She laughed as she shrugged her shoulders: “Isn’t this essentially ‘Oreo flavored Oreos’?” I love cookies, but this was just too much! I was not really upset with a corporation’s choice of marketing, rather I was discouraged by the idea that it seems so easy to get away with “the way things are,” just because, well, we keep buying it! “It seems like we are on autopilot most of the time… No one can expect things to change when we are numbed with the way things are…” I thought out loud. I could see the puzzled look on my daughter’s face was not getting any better…

I get equally puzzled, and often feel frustrated and helpless when I follow the news; especially, what is happening in the Middle East, the part of the world where I am from; the refugee crisis, the destruction of cultural sites and artifacts –another Roman temple was just blown to pieces by terrorists, a few weeks ago an archaeologist and a scholar was murdered trying to protect our collective heritage… These events are so horrific that you would wish that they were fiction, or a terrible dream –except, they are not… They are, unfortunately, very real for those who are living through them; for others, like most of us who only watch these events unfold through media, they are tragic events; events that we have no influence or power over. And, we go on with our lives…

I ask myself: What can I do? Should I be content with “the way things are?” When fundamental problems such as poverty, injustice, intolerance, violence, and inequality are still rampant around the world, what can I do with my humble resources? What is the point of having academic degrees or professional experience if I cannot find ways to turn them into agents of positive change?

My only solace comes from my belief in that human beings are hard-wired for empathy. Despite all the destruction around us, we are witnessing a unique period where the emergence of a global collective conscience is synchronized with collaborative methods, products, and scientific innovations that emanate from our ability to empathize. Empathy, allows us to feel what another is feeling, walk in their shoes, and look through their eyes; challenging and altering “the way things are” from our perspective. Furthermore, it inspires us to take action to make things right to preserve the balance and harmony of the whole. It connects us to our deepest human qualities and emotions, as well as with others, our environment, and the big picture. It is an “instigator” for compassion and altruism, as well as an “adhesive” that unifies our dispersed knowledge so that it can be put into action towards collective good. Empathy is a powerful tool that can simultaneously shape us as we shape our future…

If only we “chose” to use it…

I know I am not the only one who finds a direct correlation between recent world events with our failing educational priorities. Empathy, as a renewable resource of positive human energy, unfortunately, has largely been overlooked in our educational systems. Most of us who are products of these systems and institutions find it difficult to envision a world without competition, individuality, and materialism; especially, when things seem like they are working just fine from our perspective… A quick look at the state of the big picture, the humanity and our environment, however, would illustrate that these priorities are clearly flawed. Yet, we keep them… Not only we keep them, we also expect our children to go through the very systems and mechanisms that limit, and obscure our full potential as human beings, without really questioning –and, also probably because we are too busy trying to survive in this soul-numbing environment… What will it take for a pragmatic perspective shift to occur to prompt us to find better alternatives?

With all the turmoil spiraling out of the Middle East, a prominent curator in a major museum recently said that Islamic art curators should be “Strictly dispassionate” about the objects they were presenting to public: “So we don’t censor the evidence. We don’t promote the evidence. We try to be strictly dispassionate about the evidence. The only place where we allow ourselves any passion is in the artistic joy and excitement of something that’s beautiful and elevating and technically accomplished. But we don’t get ideological about it.”[i] –Is this the best we can do? How does this approach help alleviate any of the very real problems our world is facing, especially at the very geographies where these objects have once been created?

Or, is this even a concern?

I am afraid that if most museums keep this attitude, they will soon realize that there will be no “humanity” left to appreciate, or give meaning to their precious holdings. In some parts of the world this could manifest itself through a decline in the number of visitors, where in some other parts of the world, it could mean complete destruction and looting of irreplaceable tangible, and intangible cultural connections, leaving generations of people without any roots… Future history books would read: “…because the very institutions that were most equipped to address the lack of empathy experienced in the society could not detect this phenomenon as they were busy being object-centric, elitist, distant, and condescending; thus contributing to a collective loss of an inherent human ability to connect, and empathize…” This would be such a waste of resources, and a devastating loss for humanity!

I say, let’s get “passionate” in finding ways how our resources and knowledge of anything (and, I mean anything); our knowledge of the arts, sciences, the environment, technology, spirituality, and ancient wisdom can be utilized to result in positive behavior change. Let’s use our knowledge to develop compelling ways to present and “promote” an interconnected view of the Universe through the lens of empathy; let’s connect our dispersed knowledge, talents, and resources in meaningful ways so that we may learn to appreciate the whole… Connect ideas, peoples, minds, and hearts… While we still can…

After all, this is not about museums. This is about coexistence and survival. To battle intolerance, injustice, and violence, we must create “fertile grounds of empathy,” until perspective taking, communication, and respect to diversity in Unity become the norm. I consider museums as unique and untapped resources for the cultivation of empathy. A variety of museums over the last decades have been using empathy to connect their content to audiences, and to build communities; however, little explored are the ways how they can also collaborate with other disciplines to examine empathy as a human phenomenon, and “foster” it towards the wellbeing of the whole –not for a certain cause or agenda, or to educate the public about a certain subject, on the contrary, simply by being neutral platforms to allow people to exercise their empathy muscles; to discover the empathy within themselves and put it into action for social good.

This could be most effective if empathy is established as a “shared value” among all museums (in fact, among all institutions!), where a strategic investment on this path would be seen as an investment towards the institution’s relevance and indispensability.[ii] Strategically positioning empathy as a shared value, would not be a compromise for the museums, but would enable them to explore new and meaningful ways to connect with their audiences, utilizing their strengths towards social good.

However, as Peter Senge insightfully reflects: “Institutional change cannot happen without individual behavior change, especially the ones that are in leadership positions.”[iii] I truly believe in this, and this is why I nominate the “museum” concept to be examined as a “Knotty Object!”[iv] Only a trans-disciplinary, heart-to-heart conversation can break the cycle of “Oreo-flavored-Oreos” mind-set that is facing most of our aging systems and institutions, including the museums.

Changing our habits is not easy. However, it is up to each one of us, now, to make that choice: If we decide that empathy is the right tool to use to shape our future, it would also shape us, and our institutions for the better along the way.

As for my daughter who launched me into deep thought with her comment on “Oreo flavored Oreos” –She did not show any interest in trying out this “new” flavor. She did, however, proceed to the kitchen to experiment with ingredients and make her own cookie dough from scratch… Yes, I had to clean up after her a bit, but no one said that inventing something would be effortless, or easy…

[i] http://www.npr.org/2015/08/03/429010005/opulent-and-apolitical-the-art-of-the-mets-islamic-galleries

[ii] http://sharedvalue.org/

[iii] Senge, Peter. “Taking Personal Change Seriously: The Impact of Organizational Learning on management Practice,” Academy of Management Executive, (2003) Vol. 17, No. 2, pp.48; (article available online through: http://www.academy.clevelandclinic.org/Portals/40/CR%20Senge%20PM,%20Acad%20Manage%20Ex,%202003.pdf); Additional information on Peter Senge and Systems Thinking: https://www.solonline.org/?page=SystemsThinking; also see, https://c.ymcdn.com/sites/www.solonline.org/resource/resmgr/reflections_issues/14.1_Goleman_and_Senge.pdf; Daniel Goleman & Peter Senge, The Triple Focus: A New Approach to Education. Published by More Than Sound, LLC, 2014.

[iv] “Knotty Objects,” a recent initiative by the MIT Media Lab inspires me as it allows us to contemplate about the essence of things, question our assumptions and priorities, and to invent something better by unleashing the “potential of disciplines coming together to form new dimensions:” http://www.media.mit.edu/events/knotty/overview

Announcing an upcoming book: “Fostering Empathy Through Museums”


Fostering Empathy Through MuseumsGokcigdem, Elif M. (Ed.), Rowman & Littlefield (2016).


Empathy in museums, as one timely panel presentation at the recent AAM conference coined it, is a “hot (but tricky) concept.”* While in the past decade empathy has been garnering much interest in neuroscience, IT, design, education, entrepreneurship, and social entrepreneurship communities, it is an emerging subject in the museum world, and comes with a multitude of potential applications. Currently, there are three main approaches that are shaping up:

  • Museums as empathetic institutions (e.g. institutional empathy, as it might be reflected through the diversity of a museum’s workforce, or the speed that it reacts to social events within its community. Design-thinking methodology, which begins with empathetic fieldwork, is often used within this context to make museums more human-centric.)
  • Empathy as a tool to engage has been, and continues to be, an area of interest for several museums and museum education projects and involves connecting a museum’s specific content with its audience (e.g. through curatorial storytelling, use of technology, creative outreach to professional communities to deepen a museum’s social impact; environmental education programs at zoos, or by attempting to get the visitors empathize with people who lived in the past through programs in historic sites)
  • Other explorations of empathy offer a more experiential approach, and might position empathy as an outcome, or a product of a museum visit with a potential for positive behavior change that might lead to social progress. Here, immersive experiences and games allow visitors to explore their own behavior and become chief contributors to the content of the exhibition. Through social messaging, this proves to be an effective way for the visitor to attain self-awareness, and envision him/herself within a larger context. This approach is ripe for its potential to position museums as go-to places for the exploration of empathy towards positive behavior change in a world where empathy is, and will be a must-have ability for our collective survival.

This volume, while for the first time presenting a comprehensive overview of trends that are shaping up, will also discuss the future implications and the potential of empathy in museums, especially within the context of the social value of museums.

While the employment of empathy either as a tool, or as an outcome might be driven by a variety of motivations depending on the museum’s organizational mission, a greater overview of the subject supported by case studies with take-away ideas and lessons learned, could inspire, and assist museum professionals from leadership to volunteer docents, to better understand the potential of empathy in a museum setting, and help them unlock the exciting possibilities that this can bring to their organizations.

This publication is also intended to help start a discussion on the standards and best practices in this emerging issue as pioneered, experienced, and demonstrated by a variety of museums and institutions that will be represented in this book. A common terminology on the subject could help museums align some of their existing programs and projects with kindred perspectives presented through the case studies, and consider empathy as a shared value, which can ultimately be another tool for museums to increase their collective positive impact in society, fostering their relevance. Furthermore, the exploration of empathy in museum setting would be of interest to a variety of other industries (other informal learning institutions such as libraries, and performing arts centers; professional communities and corporations, as well as education, health, and social entrepreneurship sectors) that might be interested in this approach, or might be already investing in empathy through their programs and products, but lack context, and neutral platforms where empathy-building exercises can take place. This might lead to creative institutional, trans-disciplinary partnerships deepening the social value of museums.

This volume of peer-reviewed essays seeks to contribute new scholarship by asking museum professionals from around the world to consider the following questions:

  • How would you define empathy within the context of your case study? (e.g. is it intentional, or an accidental side-product; is it about storytelling, and connecting people and ideas; is it a response to a social event; is it expressed through community involvement, special programs; or is it interactive and immersive such as perspective taking exercises, games, role-playing, interactive elements that allow visitors to immerse themselves in other contexts; does it have a targeted focus/messaging such as instilling environmental empathy in young minds through nature education at zoos, and parks?)
  • How does your institution/project employ empathy; as an institutional practice, a tool to engage audiences to its content, or as part of a scientific inquiry of human phenomena for its implications on the society? Are there any other perspectives, ideas, or concerns on this subject that you might like to share?
  • What would you consider that makes your institution/project unique or a pioneer in the way it explores/utilizes empathy in museum setting? Does your unique approach cause a positive social impact or, strengthen your relationship with your local/global community?
  • How do you define impact, and what are some of the criteria and framework that you use to measure it?
  • How is your institution/project responsive to social events, or global issues? What are some of the issues concerning institutional empathy? What could be the role of empathy (personal, institutional, cultural, environmental…) in our society, locally and globally? Expectations of the visitors, museum leadership, board, and financial supporters?
  • Do you utilize creative and trans-disciplinary partnerships to further your organizational mission; what politics, community expectations, or values help shape these partnerships, and what are some of the barriers?
  • What does your case study reveal about the nature of empathy in our society, our global village, and our collective future?

The case studies in this volume will include the following contributions by experts from a variety of museums from children’s to science to zoos, from art to history to civil rights museums:

Fostering Empathy Through Museums (forthcoming August 2016 by Rowman & Littlefield)

Elif M. Gökçiğdem, Ph.D. (Ed.)

Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield (2016)

Table of Contents (as of April 2016)



Emlyn Koster

Prologue & Introduction

Elif Gokcigdem


Chapter 1           

Teaching Emotion and Creativity Skills Through Arts

Zorana Ivcevic Pringle, Nadine Maliakkal, and Botin Foundation


Chapter 2                       

Nurturing Empathy Between Adults and Children: Lessons from the Children’s Museum

Susan Harris MacKay


Chapter 3

Wearing Someone Else’s Shoes: The Cooperative Museum Experiences of Science of Sharing

Hugh McDonald, Elizabeth Fleming, Joshua Gutwill, and Troy Livingston


Chapter 4                       

Social Fiction and Catalyst of Change: Enhancement of Empathy Through Dialogue Exhibitions

Orna Cohen and Andreas Heinecke


Chapter 5

Response Art: Using Creative Activity to Deepen Exhibit Engagement

Jordan Potash


Chapter 6

From Indifference to Activation: How Wonder Fosters Empathy In and Beyond Informal Science Centers

Mary Beth Ausman, Michele Miller Houck, and Robert Corbin


Chapter 7

The Psychology of Empathy: Compelling Possibilities for Museums

Adam Nilsen and Miriam Bader


Chapter 8

Finding Inspiration Inside: Engaging Empathy to Empower Anyone

Dina Bailey


Chapter 9

Interpreting Arapaho Chief Niwot: Complex Pasts in Contemporary Community

Seth Frankel


Chapter 10

Designing a Story-Based Exhibition: A Case Study from the Freer and Sackler Galleries

Thomas Wide


Chapter 11

Invoking Biography in Museum Presentations of Islamic Art: Successes and Challenges

Amy Landau


Chapter 12

Adopting Empathy: Why Empathy Should Be A Required Core Value for All Museums – Period

Jon Carfagno and Adam Rozan


Chapter 13

A Decade of Community Engagement Through the Lens of Empathy

Emily Zimmern, Janeen Bryant, Kamille Bostick, and Tom Hanchett


Chapter 14

Learning From The Challenges of Our Time: The Families of September 11 and Liberty Science Center”

Donna Gaffney and Emlyn Koster


Chapter 15

Walk With Me: The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

Laura Anderson




* Panel presentation by Adam Nilsen and Miriam Bader, AAM Annual Meeting, Atlanta, 2015.