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