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.


3 thoughts on “Announcing an upcoming book: “Fostering Empathy Through Museums”

  1. […] 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:… […]


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