Why empathy tops inclusion and accessibility

April 6, 2017

This is not a particularly proud moment for humanity. Divisive narratives, poverty, inequality, injustice, famine, radicalism, war, and human rights violations thrive in countries around the world, while the natural world also suffers because of increasing human carelessness.
But what can we do? I believe we have many of the tools and technologies at our disposal to solve our problems; but they will not succeed until we adopt a worldview that values the collective well-being of the whole planet—all of humanity and the natural world that supports us. And that worldview takes empathy.

http://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/five_ways_museums_can_increase_empathy_in_the_world

Looking back on the #FocusMuseum17 conference near Berlin last week, I’m still impressed by the variety of ambitious projects and tools museums presented to foster inclusion and accessibility. No surprise that almost all participants expressed the importance of including impaired people in the production and evaluation process – something that has also always been best practice at Antenna when we develop mobile experiences for cultural sites.

One of the most interesting papers though was presented by Folker Metzger, Head of Education at the Klassik Stiftung Weimar. He pointed out that the highest barrier for inclusion and accessibility is nor the physical space neither the lack of communication – but the mindset within the museums! 

As he described it, most museums – should I add in Germany? – just don’t want to be inclusive and open to everybody. They still consider preservation as their most important objective, why too many visitors, especially those who need additional support and guidance, are seen as a risk – to say the very least. 

In addition to that, there is the mindset of our society. The white middle class, who is losing more and more ground and is no longer financially positioned to provide social welfare, now considers education as their most valuable asset and the last remaining heritage they could pass on to their children. This is why, e.g. when looking for the best place to celebrate their children’s birthday, they go to a museum – while those of lower classes go for the Happy Meal at a burger restaurant… 

Folker Metzger called out for tearing down the frontiers of a white middle class focussed museum landscape and for including instead those who avoid museums as places of sophistication. A museum’s success, in his words – and I couldn’t agree more, shouldn’t be measured by its visitor numbers, but by its visitor diversity!

But how can museums become inclusive in this much broader sense?

The first and most important step in my opinion is by showing and teaching empathy. Perceiving and sharing the feelings and thoughts of another allows us to connect to those who seem different. And connecting means becoming aware of our commonalities.

That is the good reason behind our company’s tagline, “Connecting the World to Culture“, which could also be read as connecting the world through culture. It points in the direction of a highly interesting book, that I just read, called Fostering Empathy Through MuseumsIn it, the author Elif M. Gokcigdem explains that museums are perfectly situated to foster and increase empathy in the world by:

  • putting people in proximity of other people’s lived experience and artifacts of their culture
  • telling stories that allow us to engage emotionally with the experience of other people
  • offering experimental simulation experiences that increase learning in general and empathy in particular
  • creating emotional “Wow!“ effects, which are followed by a cognitive reaction, the “How?“ and “Why?“ moment
  • providing a save place for contemplation, social encounters and exchange

In short, by teaching empathy museums can do much more than provide inclusion and accessibility. They can turn the world into a better place.

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