A Recipe for Empathy-Building Through Museums

My father had a story for every occasion, but my favorite was “watch our garden grow” where on long summer days he would take me on a contemplative journey through the eyes of simple seeds. No matter which plant I became, the story always ended with a mysterious tone in my father’s voice as he delivered the punch line: “How come you were one of many simple seeds that looked alike and nurtured by the very same earth, the sun, and the rain, yet you became a tomato, while the others became grapes, cucumbers, or an olive tree?” This was my father’s way of sharing his wisdom with me to help me see that the variety around us is actually a manifestation of a greater whole, and we need to “empathize” by looking through each other’s eyes to celebrate and sustain this wonderful diversity within unity. I still remember this, not only because my father was a great storyteller, but also because while he was telling me his story we would be observing actual plants at our garden, sometimes making a salad out of them for lunch, which enabled me to empathize with these creatures going through various life cycles right in front of my eyes.

Storytellers and artists have explored empathy, our inherent ability to understand and share the feelings of another, long before writing was invented, and wise people throughout history utilized it when putting their knowledge into action to solve problems. Only recently scientists began to understand where in our brain the feeling of empathy appears, and that it can be learned and nurtured towards positive behavior change, a critical step towards societal progress. As more and more industries are discovering the benefits of empathy to create better products, and that it can lead to critical thinking, problem solving and innovation, it will be vital for any institution with a goal to serve the public to analyze this emerging global challenge of empathy-building in order to remain relevant in the 21st century.

Museums should be on the front lines to nurture empathy by leveraging their strengths in storytelling, being safe places for unique and authentic experiences, and acting as innovation labs incorporating trans-disciplinary research, experimentation, and multi-cultural dialogue.  Museums are uniquely advantageous for their awe-inspiring real objects to tell powerful stories that could enable visitors to imagine, explore, and experiment empathy first-hand. More importantly, by becoming incubators of innovation, museums can enable new ideas to cross-pollinate towards groundbreaking human-centric products, mechanisms, and experiences that might have long-term positive impact. This requires creative alliances, and a strategic approach where institutional goals are clearly outlined and new criteria and mechanisms are developed to measure impact.

Recently, I had a déjà-vu when the words “wisdom” and “tomato” caught my eye in the same sentence. At a Mediterranean inspired fast-food chain as I was getting lunch, a quote on an employee’s t-shirt read: “Knowledge is to know that tomato is a fruit, wisdom is to know not to put it in fruit salad.” Suddenly my falafel became more meaningful as I started contemplating how there is so much emphasis on providing the future generations with information, infrastructure, technologies, and skills to get better paying jobs, while not enough attention is given to how these model members of the society will interact with each other; will they be able to look through each other’s eyes to make wise decisions when it comes to sharing and utilizing limited resources? What is knowledge worth if it is not acted upon wisely, and is not utilized for the service of the whole? Perhaps because of this unexpected lunch-time quote, all of a sudden I felt grateful how each of my father’s stories were infused with wisdom, and how lucky I was to be an audience. I also realized, how there are so few instances and places in life where one can have a real, sincere, and meaningful dialogue with another that makes you feel unique and precious, yet empowered with the knowledge that there is a greater whole that you are part of… Wouldn’t it be great if I could share my experience with others and not leave such meaningful experiences to chance? Hence, I came up with the following recipe which I call: “ESTEAM,” a new educational strategy that could be pioneered by museums to explore the power of purposeful storytelling through authentic objects and experiences augmenting the tools offered by STEAM disciplines, by adding “Empathy” as an adhesive towards building healthy communities that value not only knowledge; but also wisdom. Currently, I am working on developing a comprehensive list of tools, alliances, and ingredients. Would you care to join me as I give it a try?

Note from the Author: This exact article was first written on December 25, 2013, and publication was shared via email the same day with few select thought-leaders on empathy, creativity, and innovation. This blog was the seed thought for the author to launch “empathy-building through museums” initiative.


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