This site is intended to be a platform for trans-disciplinary alliances, content, and methods to transform museums into places of cultivating empathy, an inherent ability that is equally critical to fulfilling our human potential, as it is to our collective wellbeing and survival.
Empathy cannot be learned from books, but only through experience. It requires safe environments to flourish through observation, reflection, and action. Its levels from reactionary; driven by instinct, to reflective; driven by contemplation, lead us to a connected view of the universe where diversity and Unity are equally celebrated. This wisdom has many names: Ubuntu, yin-yang, heshook-ish tsawalk, or tawhid –it is when this wisdom is turned into actions that are compassionate and altruistic towards the whole, we fulfill our human potential and find peace. However, our systems value competition, power, and hierarchy over our collective wellbeing, blurring our vision of the big picture, making it difficult for us to find our own place and role.
Museums are uniquely equipped to become neutral platforms that foster empathy as safe and trusted places of knowledge, their willingness to explore new learning experiences, and their awe-inspiring authentic objects with amazing stories that mirror our collective human experience, inviting reflection. If augmented around a strategic intent that places empathy as a shared-value and a strategic outcome vs. an object-centric existence, museums functioning as places for the cultivation of empathy might result in positive individual behavior change, and social progress. This would require a pragmatic shift in how we currently see museums, and how museums see themselves, which could be accomplished through trans-disciplinary collaboration.
The most profound problems our world is facing today are due to a lack of empathy towards ourselves, others, as well as the environment. Empathy gives us a unique power that connects us to the Universe around and within us, and encourages us to use our knowledge and resources towards greater good. Empathy can be the adhesive meaningfully connecting our knowledge and resources to build societies that value not only knowledge; but also wisdom.
While empathy is a natural instinct, unleashing it towards positive behavior change and social progress requires a strategic intention, and a systematic approach. Today there are many successful programs offered by non-profits and academia that raise awareness on empathy and demonstrate how it can be nurtured and utilized. There is also an increasing understanding in the corporate world that empathy can lead to economic growth through human-centric products, scientific innovation, and entrepreneurship.
This momentum deserves a closer examination by any public institution with a mission to serve the society, as their sustainability in the long run might depend on it. Understanding what triggers empathy, how it is reflected through individual, social, or institutional behavior, and how it can be cultivated and harnessed as creative thinking, scientific curiosity, communication, teamwork, and leadership, will be the sign of those institutions that will cause positive societal progress and remain relevant to the society in the 21st century.
The solution lies within.
As Peter Senge insightfully reflects: “The idea that somehow organizations can change without personal change, and especially without change on the part of people in leadership positions, underlies why many change efforts are doomed from the start.” It is vital for individuals, and especially children to learn and unleash empathy towards personal and social progress. However, empathy can only be shown through stories or felt through meaningful experiences, and it remains under-explored in formal education.
How do we then create those experiences so that they imprint empathy on a young mind?
Elif M. Gokcigdem holds a Ph.D. in History of Islamic Arts from the Istanbul Technical University, and a certificate in Museum Studies from the George Washington University. For the past eight years, she has been working as an advisor to a major cultural center project in the Middle East in the areas of content development and integration, local capacity building, culture in sustainable economic development, and strategic international partnerships. Her current research interests include the promotion of creative thinking skills and empathy-building towards positive behavior change and societal progress through arts and sciences integration, storytelling, and experiential learning at museums.