Empathy-building through museums: What’s in it for teachers and students?
This is the best way to make good use of museum field trips
(An interview with Elif Gokcigdem, by Emlyn Crenshaw)
Photo: Shawn Clover/Flickr
In an exhibit called the Science of Sharing deep within the Exploratorium, a San Francisco museum dedicated to playful learning, Elif Gokcigdem sat down at table across from a colleague. Each were given a set of cards with random words on them: oil, transportation, computer, food, etc. The two were tasked with individually sorting their cards into two separate piles, one for “public” and one for “private.”
“He was dividing them somehow evenly, but I put all my cards in ‘public,’” recalls Elif. “I thought, Did I do something wrong?!? And he said, ‘no — we just make different choices.’”
Elif still can’t stop thinking about the sorting activity. After years of studying the history of Islamic art and museum studies, the activity at the Exploratorium was the first time Elif felt an exhibit enabled her to face her own behavior and how empathy clearly affected her day-to-day choices. Ever since, she has been fascinated with what she calls “empathy-building through museums,” or “empathy hacking” — strategically designing museums, exhibitions, and their educational programming to serve as platforms for the exploration of empathy. In her own words: “My goal is to make museums platforms where empathy can be built, explored, nurtured, and harnessed strategically towards personal and social progress.”
Such spaces could be an exciting destination for class fieldtrips, and a site at which children could build upon the lessons they learn in school. Here are a few fast facts about empathy-building through museums, to get you thinking about how you’d like your favorite exhibits to transform:
1. Museums offer unique resources that a classroom just doesn’t have.
Museums are chock full of fascinating and authentic artifacts and resources that can’t be found elsewhere (like a classroom).
“Museums are full of treasures,” says Elif, “But their multi-faceted stories are usually not that accessible to people who visit. If we can bring out the stories that are hidden in these objects through creative storytelling, experiential learning and play –these experiences can be really inspirational for us to place ourselves in other contexts, and in other people’s shoes.”
Also, “museums are a neutral platform, instead of a political or religious place. They generally have no affiliation, and it’s not their mission to advocate a certain perspective,” says Elif. “A museum experience can therefore be used as an opportunity to show people that there are multiple perspectives for looking at anything around them.”
2. Stories and emotions matter.
Stories and emotions can come alive in a museum setting. They are important because they are how we learn, and how we identify with other people and cultural groups. Additionally, when children see themselves represented in a story, or get involved in it through play, it validates their experiences and emotions and gives them a greater sense of security. Museums provide immersive experiences in ways that pictures in textbooks or on the Internet do not.
“Creating emotions as part of the visitor’s experience is not on top of the list for most museums… but I think that, with anything in life, you have to make a connection — how does it make me a better person? Why should I care about this? If you don’t have an emotional connection, you tend to lose the experience,” says Elif. “Experiencing an emotion through stories and games is the best way to make that connection.”
3. Children’s museums are doing it right.
Believe it or not, all kinds of museums can be just as interactive and engaging as children’s museums. Even the most adult-y art museums have stories to tell. I was admittedly skeptical about this when I met with Elif, so I asked for an example. Here’s what she offered:
“Almost twenty years ago, I was a volunteer docent at a Corcoran Galleryexhibition showcasing priceless objects from Turkey, straight from Topkapi, the imperial Ottoman palace. There was a calligraphic piece that I was quite familiar with — I have an interest in calligraphy. It was a ‘hilye,’ a written portrait of the prophet of Islam.
With only a simple text that contained the object’s size and the year of its creation, there was no information available about the true significance of this piece, which to me was at the heart of understanding the culture that created the rest of the objects in the show. Well, I happened to have a translation of the Arabic script with me… so I asked the group of visitors whether they wanted to know what this unassuming piece was and what it said.
They unanimously said yes, and I explained that this was a “portrait” — albeit a different portrait than the Western visual artistic sense — and read the text which was a detailed description of a man that also included cues about his character from the way his hair was, the way he walked, and the way he looked at someone when talking. There was a moment of contemplation, and everyone seemed to be content having just learned what the written message on this artwork was, but I decided to take an extra step and asked the group to close their eyes and try to visualize the person as described in the piece. When they did so, I asked them if they were given a pen and paper, how would their portrait of this person look like.
When they opened their eyes, they started clapping. I did not need to say anything else, as each one of them had already realized how different and unique the image they had each created from the same text. It was a perspective-shifting, emotional moment transcending time and space. The visitors in that group tour were able to see this artwork through the eyes of a culture that enabled it, the artist who created it, and perhaps through the eyes of the person who commissioned it.”
4. Even if museums and exhibits aren’t focused on building empathy, you have the power to interpret the experience in a way that emphasizes multiple perspectives.
“There is no single recipe; we have to experiment and invent new ways to foster empathy, and museums are uniquely equipped to provide context. I try to create empathy-building experiences for my children when we go to museums.” says Elif. “I have the responsibility as a mother to create meaningful memories where we collectively reflect on our unique position within the universe. This is the perspective I try to use when I interpret art, nature, or recent events for my children.”
I believe Elif is on to something. Check out her blog if you do, too — and next time you’re at a museum, pause and think: How could I empathy hack this gallery?
Bio: Emlyn Crenshaw is a media manager for Ashoka’s Start Empathy team. She is a student of Georgetown University, where she is pursuing a degree in Justice & Peace and Sociology. To read the original blog, do log on to the Start Empathy website.
Article first appeared in: http://startempathy.org/blog/2015/04/empathy-building-through-museums-teacher%E2%80%99s-guide