Empathy and Education in the Museum

Empathy and Education in the Museum
Jenny Kidd, City University London
Following our discussion about silence at the last event, our questions for today more
explicitly relate to the matter of empathy, and its place within museums’ work. If we
have surmised that silence is about more than just lack of sound (for whatever reason),
then how might we usefully complicate this term ‘empathy’? It’s a term we heard
repeatedly in the original Challenging History Network seminars, and again many times
at the conference, but its one that you sense is being used with caution. So, we need to
unpack it.
The questions we set ourselves for today are as follows…
- Do participation and co-production in heritage aid empathetic engagement?
- How might empathy and emotional engagement be better articulated?
- Are learning outcomes the best ways to think about this?
I hope in the next ten minutes not to answer these questions of course, but to present
some ideas from the literature which might give us some tools to think though them.
Definitions and Characteristics
There are many definitions of empathy (it’s one of those words – like culture, identity,
heritage - which is contested). But definitions do have a number of things in common.
The best I’ve found for summing it up is this:
the process whereby one person ‘feels her/himself into the consciousness of another
person’ (Wispe ,́ L. 1987).
So, what have we got…
1. It’s a feeling – an emotional state, very often a reaction
2. It has to do with the consciousness of another – the sensations, memories,
experiences taking place within another person –
3. It’s about getting ‘into’ those things – displacing yourself, an active mental state.
So, it’s imagining or projecting yourself into those sensations or experiences of another
in order that you ‘feel’ what that person feels, or might feel. It is a social interaction that
can lead to a number of outcomes, not least, a motivation to respond with care, or with
Such feelings are not necessarily confined to interactions we have in the here and now.
We can of course have such feelings for those ‘in the past’. Marianne Hirsch’s theory of
Postmemory (1997) is one way of beginning to understand this. Postmemory is the
experience of those who carry memory even after primary witnesses to events are
gone. It is an inheritance of past events that are still being worked through, and thus
experienced. I hear about a community or social group that I belong to’s experiences of
trauma and they become in some way my memory, as a ‘person born “after”’; but the
memory is ‘delayed, indirect, secondary’ (Hirsch) An example… in 2007, we did some
research around the bicentenary of the abolition of the slave trade act and we saw a lot
of this in evidence – people feeling empathy for and continuing to work through the
issues that were raised by the very fact of the journeys and experiences of their
ancestors (Kidd, 2012). Empathy is a big part then of many peoples’ relationships with
their ‘past’ as played out in museum spaces and historic sites.
So, why is empathy important? The literature is clear that empathy is an important
quality when it comes to our development and learning (I’ll come to this in a moment).
Indeed, it has been mooted that ‘these processes are the basis for all social perception
and interaction’ (Batson, 2009)
Emapthy is then:
- An other-oriented feeling as opposed to a self-oriented feeling.
- Directly related to ethics – in relation to our capacity to respond to others
- Imaginative perspective-taking at a high-level (low-level empathy which involves
mirroring others emotions is more akin to ‘sympathy’ – sympathy doesn’t involve
this additional element of self-projection) (Goldman 2006 in Coplin and Goldie,
2011). As Joanne Sayner pointed out in an email exchange, the difference is also a
cognitive one – in all the while understanding that I am different from the person
I’m empathising with, I open up the possibility of empathizing with those with
whom I might not agree or who might have committed heinous acts.
- An interaction we can have with those present, but also something that can be
dislocated somehow in time and space.
- One of the foundations of Psychology, but increasingly of concern in other
So, what skills does empathy help us foster? Why is it so important to learning?
Summarising the literature it seems that empathy …
Increases social understanding
Lessens social conflict
Lessens aggression
Increases Compassion and caring
Makes us more likely to understand feelings/perceptions of diverse and minority
groups – lessening prejudice
• Aids recall of things we have read – in fact, it has been found that there is a
reciprocal relationship between reading and empathy – each aids the other
• Increases emotional competence
• Motivates pro-social and moral behavior/action/altruism
All of these lead to better classroom learning and (in more than one study) higher
(FEshbach & Feshbach, 2009)
It’s thus a great skill, and can be a really useful methodology.
Some psychologists have been vexed by the question of whether empathy can be
Although the pattern of empathy development remains something of a mystery, it is
generally accepted that empathy can be learnt and therefore that empathy can be
taught and trained. Especially through role-playing techniques, group learning,
creative tasks, cross –age activity (note: museum learning activities very often fit here)
But we need to be careful…
Empathy is of course not inevitably or universally a positive feeling, nor is it without its
‘Empty Empathy’
According to E Ann Kaplin, in her 2011 work on empathy and images of trauma (useful
in thinking about museums, representation and challenging history), ‘empty empathy’
is as likely a result of engaging with representations of trauma as any useful empathic
engagement. She talks of fleeting, transitory feelings of empathy caused by overexposure to multiple representations of trauma, leading to feelings of hopelessness and
very little in the way of positive outcome, ‘action’, or thoughts beyond the individual.
Such engagement can lead to what she calls a sort of bland sentimentality.
Something else to watch out for is ‘The empathy paradox’
In research I was involved in at Manchester University a few years ago into the use of
performance as a learning medium, we were interested in investigating empathy as a
pathway to further learning. It proved to be a powerful emotional tool giving insight
into and understanding of the lives of other individuals that were hard to achieve
through other formal, more cognition-based modes of learning. As such, it was a great
motivator to learn more.
But the research suggested there may be narrowing as well as deepening aspects to the
empathy process – something of an empathy paradox. It revealed that empathy can, in
certain circumstances, offer a very partial ‘monocular’ reading of events and discourage
the individual from seeing the larger picture. Empathic engagement with a person from
the past (real or imaginary) may offer us one set of understandings but at the same
time narrow our vision, induce us into thinking that’s ‘how it was’ and all we need to
Perhaps the best we can hope for is a form of ‘Empathic unsettlement’ (La Capra,
Here, what is highlighted is the disruption and disturbance that can be found through
empathic engagement with people/events from the past. In this view, the unsettling
nature of empathy itself highlights the very limits of understanding (Williams, in
Cameron et al), raising questions about what can and can’t be known, learnt, felt, and
made sense of. Such an approach prevents over-identification and/or harmonizing
narratives, and acknowledges that our understanding of the other can never be
The limits of empathy/final questions
- Is empathy self-oriented in the final analysis? That is, is it always and inevitably
about how WE feel, rather than understanding the feelings of another?
- How can empathic engagement be measured? How can increases in empathy be
- Does empathic accuracy matter? That is, does it matter if the feelings we feel on
empathizing are in fact incongruent with those felt by the other individual?
- Could the same outcomes be achieved through another (easier?) means?
- ‘Empathy for the Devil’ – should we/how can we empathise with those who
perform atrocious acts
- Does experience/emotion naturally pertain to comprehension? Just because we
have ‘felt’ and experienced something, does it mean we understand it?
‘Understanding and comprehension come slowly. Their efforts cannot be shortcircuited.’ (Steyn, 2012)
- Is empathy merely manipulation? Or worse an appropriation of others’
- Is the benefit/end point of empathy knowledge or action?
- How do we adequately account for and justify empathy as an e-learning outcome?
- If empathy can be learnt, what is the responsibility of the museums staff and
educators to ‘learn’ it too?
- Is there a line that patently shouldn’t be crossed?
And to end with an example of when the call to empathy seems just plain crass… I’ve
been doing some research recently on online museum games where role-play is of
course seen as a pathway to comprehension and empathic engagement. In a game from
the Canadian War Museum called ‘Over the Top’, I was immersed in a role play that
took me on quite some journey, encouraging me all of the time to feel with and through
the character I was playing: I was a soldier in the trenches. Because of a decision I made
my best friend died, later I was rewarded for killing three German soldiers with a
grenade, I had done a good job, but none-the-less I q eventually died myself – and
here is the telegram to my parents informing them of my death to prove it!
Empathic unsettlement yes, but for all the wrong reasons.
Batson, ‘These Things Called Empathy’ in Decety, J and Ickes, W. 2009. The Social Neuroscience of
Empathy. MIT Press.
Feshbach and Feshbach, ‘Empathy and Education’ in Decety, J and Ickes, W. 2009. The Social
Neuroscience of Empathy. MIT Press.
Hirsch, M. 1997. Family Frames: Photography, Narrative and Postmemory. Harvard University Press.
Kaplan, E. Ann. ‘Empathy and Trauma Culture: Imaging Catastrophe’ in Coplin, A and Goldie, P. 2011.
Empathy: Philosophical and Psychological Perspectives. OUP.
La Capra, D. 2001, Writing History, Writing Trauma. Johns Hopkins University Press.
Jackson, A and Kidd, J (eds) Performing Heritage. Manchester University Press.
Kidd, J, 2012, ‘The museum as narrative witness: heritage performance and the production of
narrative space’ in McLeod, Suzanne, Hourston Hanks, Laura and Hale, Jonathan (eds) Museum
Making: Narratives, Architectures, Exhibitions. Routledge.
Steyn, J. 2011 ‘Vicissitudes of Representation: remembering and forgetting’ in Kidd, Cairns, Drago,
Ryall, & Stearn, (forthcoming) Challenging History in the Museum. Ashgate Publishing.
Williams, P. ‘Hailing the Cosmopolitan Conscience’ in Cameron, F and Kelly, L (eds) 2010, Hot Topics,
Public Culture, Museums. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars
Wispe ́ L. 1987. ‘History of the Concept of Empathy.’ N. Eisenberg & J. Strayer (eds). Empathy and its
Development. Cambridge, MA: Cambridge UP, 17–37.