What do museums have to do with empathy?
Gretchen Jennings writes that museums have a responsibility to demonstrate empathy toward their communities. In doing so, they might not only serve their visitors better, but also model a kinder society.
On another level, museums may be particularly effective vehicles at engaging visitors in empathetic responses. Museums provide immersive, personal experiences. Looking at a portrait of someone, or visiting an exhibition about a historical figure or moment, these distant people are palpable and present.
The 19th century author George Eliot spoke beautifully about this, although she did not use the word empathy. She was talking about art rather than more generally about museums, but the impact she describes will resonate with any museum professional or visitor. In her 1856 essay “The Natural History of German Life,” Eliot wrote,