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Practicing Empathy


When I first started working at the Levine Museum of the New South, I had a very different understanding of empathy.  As a child, I used to believe that empathy required experiencing the exact same situation or conditions as another person in order to understand their experiences.  However, Levine Museum has changed that perception.  As an empathetic museum, Levine Museum practices empathy as it poses visitors with questions that force them to think critically and draw parallels between their lived experiences and others’ lived experiences, histories and perspectives. 

Gretchen Jennings, editor of the Exhibitionist, articulately defines and validates the role of empathy as she writes, “Empathy, the experience of feeling with and not just for another requires a strong core, a sense of self that can dare to be open to the experience of others.” Classical museums have had a tendency to distance history and the viewer; slavery becomes a thing of the past, the Ku Klux Klan is deemed obsolete, and segregation is supposedly over in the United States.  However, we are still living in a time period where Atlanta is an international center for human trafficking, terrorist sentiments persist, and Charlotte schools have been hyper-segregated in the wake of busing.  History is so strongly intertwined with our current realities, and it can serve as a vehicle for change when people are able to place themselves in different contexts, perspectives, and narratives.  Yet, when history is distanced away as figments of the past, it becomes difficult to prevent history from repeating itself.

Does everyone have equal rights in the South today? Practicing empathy enables people to deconstruct how culture is at the root of our attitudes, behaviors and cultural norms.  Developing this understanding is crucial to acknowledging the way in which some of our innermost assumptions and stereotypes have been passed down for generations.  Levine Museum differs in that multiple histories are taught through the use of interactive exhibits and facilitated dialogues, whether the staff is working to build exhibits or design educational programming.  During guided tours, docents are trained to integrate questions into their tours. Question and Post-it Note stations are in each exhibit section, and they serve to prompt visitors to connect history to modern-day events and conditions. For example, as visitors reflect on the civil rights movements of the 1960s, they are asked, “Does everyone have equal rights in the South today?” Such questions are open-ended and create an anonymous forum in which visitors can openly express how they draw connections between history and themselves.

Educational programs, such as the Freedom Schools Dialogues done each summer with campers from across Charlotte, seek to bring in students as young as 5 years old. This year, the groups looked at the photo gallery Faces of Freedom Summer, about the Freedom Summer of 1964 and learn how to emotionally connect to photographs. 

Broadly, one could say that Levine Museum aims to educate. More specifically, our museum seeks to build a community through empathy-building.  Some may ask what role empathy or emotion can play in something so institutional as community-building.  Arguably, empathy has significance on three different levels.  On an individual level, empathy strengthens a person’s emotional intelligence—a crucial element to building an individual’s self-awareness of how he or she interacts with those around him or her.  This sort of intelligence can compel individuals to move to a level of self-advocacy when experiencing social struggle. 

On a community level, self-advocacy leads to action-advocacy for those who undergo similar social struggles but do not have the same power or privileges to assert their agency.  Locally, the Museum acts as a safe space where facilitated dialogues, such as the LGBTQ exhibit listening sessions or From Swastika to Jim Crow documentary talk-back, also act as vehicles for facilitated action.  Sharing narratives is the first step of making a movement as community members color their local contexts with personal stories, adversities, strategies and triumphs. 

On a national level, practicing empathy reforms our current understanding of voice and representation.  Classical museums, and even classical education as a whole, have persisted in teaching people that only dominant voices are worth recording. However, Levine Museum is participating in a movement of educational museums that value community voice and reduce the authority of the curator. For far too long museum design has been in the hands of curators and museum professionals.  As museums reform, visitors can look forward to seeing institutions that better reflect the community.