Compassion, identity and museums

IMGP1448Suse Cairns has written an interesting post on The Paradoxes of Empathy and the role of museums to engender it. I found it timely because the Museums Association has just launched its vision for the impact of museums: Museums Change Lives. 

Suse helpfully explains empathy and some different views about it in relation to museums. Her take on the paradox of empathy is: We cannot think ourselves into the mind or emotions of everyone and still maintain our sense of self. But if we never attempt to move from our own position, which necessarily privileges those concerns and people that have personal meaning, can we ever create institutions that are appropriately inclusive and sensitive to others?

So, the challenge of empathy for museums, and cultural learning in general, is that we need to engage people through a sense of identity (or sameness) and use that feeling as a vehicle to carry across to concern for those who are different. (This echoes Flow theory, that optimum engagement comes from comfort and challenge together.) Conversely, because museums primarily engender a sense of wonder about unknown or different phenomena or experiences, their challenge is also to use this wonder to engender empathetic connections in order to stimulate actions to protect or sustain other heritage or habitats. Suse refers to the argument about whether empathy is cognitive or emotional and cites psychologist Paul Ekman who sees three types (or stages?) of empathy: cognitive, emotional and compassionate empathy. The latter seems to be what makes a difference to one’s values and subsequent actions. This seems to combine thought and feeling towards others, so compassionate empathy, through this combination, should be a goal for museums.

Empathy is a significant act of imagination, yet despite its challenges, it is both very human and very compelling to us. It is inborn, and very young children are able to feel the pain and anger of others, including animals, because it is essential for us to assess threats to our survival. However, empathy can be educated out of us, alongside imaginative capacities. The more trauma and abuse children experience, the more that their capacities for empathy will be dysfunctional. Mostly, empathy is eroded through education in more subtle ways, by devaluing imaginative play and emphasising competition.

Suse’s post is concerned with a question of how empathy can be institutionalised and so transform museums as institutions, how it might enable better planning and decision-making. I’m mainly interested in how museums can effect change in society, so I would argue that as institutions they can be transformed by aiming to educate people back into compassionate empathy.

To do this, they need to engage critically and politically. The interpretation of empathy as problematic, by the thinkers and bloggers mentioned, seems partly to be a result of the dominance of Cartesian dualism, with arguments about the primacy of either reason or emotion as if they are such very separate things. It partly seems to be a symptom of the over-emphasis in affluent Western society on subjective sentiment, individual achievement and ‘identity thinking’. One might also add to this list that: anthropocentrism reduces bioempathy; hypersexualisation increases reification; inequality breeds hatred; and nationalism creates artificial barriers between peoples. The Western emphasis on the self is a backlash against the ideologically-driven mass movements of violent Communism and Islamism. For example, in this Guardian debate about religion and violence, an atheist, Jane Caro argues that it’s not just religion but ‘bigger-than-self ideas that cause conflict. (I’d argue she’s conflating the term ‘bigger-than-self’ with something like ‘selfsame-but-bigger-with-others-like-me’.)

There still remain other societies, those not ruled too much by xenophobic, patriarchal and fundamentalist dogma, where empathy flows more naturally out and on into adulthood. Perhaps in such societies, decisions based on empathy are not so swayed by sentiment or bias towards attractive people or ‘people like me’ but more swayed by perceptions of usefulness, by curiosity or cultural attitudes of generosity. This may sound idealistic (my own bias) but there is evidence in the work of many anthropologists and travellers. For example, Kith by Jay Griffiths. Also essential reading is Identity and Violence by Amartya Sen, in which he argues that defining yourself with a solitarist identity (Identity Thinking) is an act of violence because it gives rise to violence.

In some milieu, it might be a positive goal to lose your sense of self by thinking yourself into the minds and emotions of others. Western psychological therapy is ideally a process of integrating the Self, which has some parallels with a Buddhist suppression of ego, to achieve transformation towards calm mindfulness and compassion. However, consumerist and narcissistic culture has such a powerful impact and has corrupted our interpretation of ‘a sense of self’. Too often, people take it to mean high self-esteem that enables you to win friends, influence people and have it all. Or, they exhibit Sen’s Identity-Thinking, defining themselves and others through solitary indicators such as national origin, colour of skin or faith group. So, having a ‘sense of self’ in these ways can interrupt our capacities for empathy.

Suse refers to Orhan Pamuk’s Modest Manifesto for Museums. This is interesting in the light of current protests in Istanbul, sparked by opposition to Erdogan’s plans for boosting nationalistic heritage and consumerism (replacing Gezi Park with a shopping mall and a reconstruction of a historic barracks). Pamuk argues for museums that tell stories of people’s lives and emotions with humble or common objects, rather than grandiose, epic, nationalistic stories told through iconic objects. His own Museum of Innocence exemplifies this ideal and I find myself agreeing with him. In proposing that the Museum of Innocence is an ideal museum, I’m doing a double-take myself. The objects in this museum are the relics of ordinary Turkish people whom one feels might really exist but in fact they are figments of Pamuk’s imagination as writer and our imaginations as readers and visitors. The museum brings characters from two of his novels closer to their possible existence. People don’t need to have really existed for us to empathise with them and so immerse ourselves in past or different lives. Their stories need to be well told and we need to feel that they are human, with all their failings and trials, their confusions of identity.

Perhaps the role for more ‘compassionate museums’ is to help us read our way into other people’s worlds, including the bigger systemic worlds of the biosphere, and then to actively help us jump out of that immersion in stories to take action. (NB The photo shows protestors in Turkey who are standing still and reading.)

Taksim Square Book Club


One response to “Compassion, identity and museums

  1. Thank you for bringing up the notion of “Cartesian dualism.” I agree that arguments about the primacy of reason vs. emotion assert that they are separate things. Reason and emotion (and, by that token, empathy) need one another. How can one appreciate “reason” without “empathy” for the person articulating a particular brand of “reason?” (For more thoughts on empathy, see my post, “Empathy as the starting point for innovation.”

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