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The Empathetic Museum and Cultural Accessibility

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#EmpatheticMuseum Empathy: the Key to Cultural Accessibility Gretchen Jennings Gretchenjennings@rcn.com @gretchjenn Museum Commons Blog www.museumcommons.com CECA Conference, Washington, DC, September 2015


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The Empathetic Museum Project • Colleagues Janeen Bryant, Jim Cullen, Elissa Frankle, Matt Kirchman, Stacey Mann, Rainey Tisdale •New Website www.empatheticmuseum.com •Tumblr site: http://empatheticmuseum.tumblr.com/


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Focus of this presentation •Application of the Empathetic Museum construct to the concept of Accessibility, broadly understood. •The Empathetic Museum is one that, through its structure, mission, policies, collections, exhibitions, programs, staffing, --- in all its manifestations—is closely connected to its community, is able to “stand in its shoes.” •Thesis: without institutional empathy, our museums cannot be fully accessible.


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#EmpatheticMuseum Characteristics of Empathetic Museum 1. Civic Vision: Cultivates links with a broad range of civic organizations, from city or town officials, police force, school and library leaders, to churches and community organizations. 2. A Habit of Mind: such that whatever is happening in the community (whether or not it is related to museum type or collection) is of interest (and is considered to be legitimately of interest) to the institution and is taken into consideration in its planning and activities. 3. Timeliness: Because the museum has planned ahead, & has consistent connections with its diverse audiences, it is able to respond in a timely fashion when a crisis (almost by definition something that is not anticipated) occurs. 4. Resonance & Responsiveness: 5. Accessible Institutional Body Language: The unspoken The museum has strong and trusted connections with all the diverse (and often neglected) aspects of the community, in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, socio-economic status. messages the museum communicates through its structure, staffing, advertising, exhibitions and programs say all are welcome; you are part of us, and we of you.


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#EmpatheticMuseum Characteristics of Empathetic Museum 1. Civic Vision: Cultivates links with a broad range of civic organizations, from city or town officials, police force, school and library leaders, to churches and community organizations. 2. A Habit of Mind: such that whatever is happening in the community (whether or not it is related to museum type or collection) is of interest (and is considered to be legitimately of interest) to the institution and is taken into consideration in its planning and activities. 3. Timeliness: Because the museum has planned ahead, & has consistent connections with its diverse audiences, it is able to respond in a timely fashion when a crisis (almost by definition something that is not anticipated) occurs. 4. Resonance & Responsiveness: 5. Accessible Institutional Body Language: The unspoken The museum has strong and trusted connections with all the diverse (and often neglected) aspects of the community, in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, socio-economic status. messages the museum communicates through its structure, staffing, advertising, exhibitions and programs say all are welcome; you are part of us, and we of you.


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Resonance & Responsiveness: The museum has strong and trusted connections with all the diverse (and often neglected) aspects of the community, in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, socio-economic status. The Museum is an “anchor institution” In the larger community


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In Cities, Museums, and Soft Power, Lord and Blankenberg refer to museums as “anchor institutions.” • “A city’s anchor institutions are those that have proven to be sites of community sustainability, such as hospitals, universities, libraries, community centers, places of worship and museums . • Museums as anchor institutions exercise soft power (the power of influence) based on community participation •Transparency and the inclusion of multiple voices are critical to achieving soft power. “ (Lord and Blankenberg, 20-22).


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#EmpatheticMuseum Characteristics of Empathetic Museum 1. Civic Vision: Cultivates links with a broad range of civic organizations, from city or town officials, police force, school and library leaders, to churches and community organizations. 2. A Habit of Mind: such that whatever is happening in the community (whether or not it is related to museum type or collection) is of interest (and is considered to be legitimately of interest) to the institution and is taken into consideration in its planning and activities. 3. Timeliness: Because the museum has planned ahead, & has consistent connections with its diverse audiences, it is able to respond in a timely fashion when a crisis (almost by definition something that is not anticipated) occurs. 4. Resonance & Responsiveness: 5. Accessible Institutional Body Language: The unspoken The museum has strong and trusted connections with all the diverse (and often neglected) aspects of the community, in terms of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, disability, socio-economic status. messages the museum communicates through its structure, staffing, advertising, exhibitions and programs say all are welcome; you are part of us, and we of you.


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A museum’s institutional body language (non-verbal messages) •The Board members it recruits and cultivates •The staff and volunteers it hires •The images the museum chooses for advertising its mission and activities • The objects it selects for its collections •The stories it tells in its exhibitions and programs •The design of the building Can often speak more loudly to the public than written communications: • mission statements • hiring policies and procedures, • diversity and accessibility policies


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The institutional body language of most US museums is out of step with our society’s most progressive aspirations. Museums’ institutional body language values regressive, exclusive, and inaccessible hierarchies: •In an era that emphasizes women in leadership, most museums are led by (white) men Women make up the majority of staff in lower positions- curators, educators, etc. •In the 21st century, museums’ structures resemble the Upstairs/Downstairs hierarchy of the 19th century: White people on the administrative floors; people of color in the basement. In art museums, where “ 28% of staff are from minority backgrounds, the great majority of these workers are concentrated in security, facilities, finance, and human resources” (The Andrew Mellon Foundation, July 29, 2015. •In an era that cries out for racial justice and diversity, museum boards, leadership, and professional staff remain consistently homogenous Among museum curators, conservators, educzators, and leaders, only 4 % are African American and 3% Hispanic. (The Andrew Mellon Foundation, July 29, 2015)


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The institutional body language of most US museums is out of step with our society’s most progressive aspirations. Museums’ institutional body language values regressive, exclusive, and inaccessible hierarchies:. •In an era in which physical accessibility is legally mandated (ADA), the topic of disability as a life experience common to many is absent from our exhibitions, programs, and collections, • In an era when the LGBT community has made great strides both legally and in the wider society, this community is almost invisible in our museums in terms of collections, exhibition themes, programs.


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#EmpatheticMuseum Most museums have a We/They relationship with “diverse audiences” • People of color • LGBT community • People with disabilities • Low SES


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#EmpatheticMuseum Many “inclusive” efforts betray a “We/They” mindset. • Hiring a “community coordinator” to bring in “new audiences” when the museum has not diversified its staff, volunteers, board. • Mounting the occasional exhibition to attract a “diverse audience.” • Outreach TO new audiences rather than asking communities how the museum might work WITH them.


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#EmpatheticMuseum Our institutions must become Empathetic Museums in order to move beyond physical accessibility to social and cultural accessibility. • We must embrace our roles as anchor institutions in our respective communities • We must carefully examine the non verbal (conscious and unconscious) messages our institutions send to our communities, and seek to transform them. • We must move from We (the Museum) invite Them (the community) into our spaces to a relationship in which our community says MUSEUMS ARE US


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