Two Human Beings, The Lonely Ones, 1894, by Edvard Munch.

A Leading Voice for Growing Empathy Through Art Speaks to its Promise and Pitfalls

When Mia launched the Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts, in 2017, Elif Gokcigdem was among the project’s advisors. Born in Turkey, she became a historian of Islamic art and a scholar of museums themselves before focusing on building empathy. In her 2016 book, Fostering Empathy Through Museums, she introduced the notion that museums could function as sites of empathy-building and social change. Her latest book, Designing for Empathy, expands on this idea through the perspectives of researchers, academics, and museum professionals (including Mia’s Director of Learning Innovation, Karleen Gardner, writing about museums as incubators of innovation and social impact).

Here, in a recent conversation, she discusses her new book, the importance of fresh perspectives, and what it really means to design for empathy.

Mia: In your first book, you noted that creating intentional spaces for fostering empathy has historically gotten little attention. Why start with museums?

Elif Gokcigdem: We are at a time in our civilization where there’s clearly a crisis. We cannot seem to connect. Empathy is critical for a better society and a better environment. [But] you need a safe space for that perspective shift to take place. The experience itself has to be subtle, non-clashing in a way. It has to let us find our own way through our emotions in the privacy of our own minds and hearts. I think museums provide just the perfect state because you visit a museum at your own pace. It’s a place we can repurpose that already exists in most communities. But are we really using them intentionally to think about our own emotions and our own biases? Are we given the tools or the guidance or even the question?

What does it mean to intentionally design for empathy?

Intentional design for empathy is basically just calling it that — saying that this is something we’re looking into, and just by naming it I think we make it intentional and invite others to look into it with us. There’s no prescription, and the search for this empathy building will and should go on a variety of contexts — in children’s museums, in science and history museums, and also other informal learning platforms such as libraries, performing arts, and even public parks. To get people to think differently about issues that they come across every day. If we can invite someone to consider taking another perspective, I think that’s the process of an intentional design for empathy building.

You stress the importance of collaboration in this work. How might museums partner with businesses to better design for empathy?

Empathy permeates life, in all aspects, so the solution for diminishing empathy cannot belong to just one institution or one industry. Museums alone will not be able to solve this, education alone will not be able to solve this. As we look toward artificial intelligence and new technology, the need for true human skills is becoming more apparent. But at the same time, we have this challenge because we have not really invested in cultivating those skills; they have always been taken for granted. When I visit an art museum, I’m interested in finding out something about my own behavior, something in a new perspective that I haven’t really considered, something I can use in my daily life, in my communication with my own children, in my work life. For example, businesses might want to build on leadership development, design better products — relevant products. It just takes one person from an industry who is interested in hearing what others have to say, and it will soon become apparent that museums are a resource. They are uniquely equipped because they have the informal learning space where you can experiment.

Can you give an example of how art might enable a perspective shift?

Maybe two decades ago, I was a docent at the Corcoran Museum of Art in Washington, D.C. They brought this exhibition from a Turkish museum, the Topkapi Palace. It was a collection of really dazzling objects — diamonds the size of my fist, and rupees, and gold brocade textiles. I was giving tours, and decided I wanted to show this group beyond the dazzle — what was beyond the pattern and the symbolism. There was this piece of calligraphy, it was sort of like an afterthought, largely invisible. But I happen to study calligraphy, and I knew what that object was: it belonged to a master calligrapher from the Ottoman period, like the Michelangelo or the Leonardo da Vinci of calligraphy. I found a translation of the text and it was actually a verbal portrait of the prophet of Islam, Prophet Muhammad.

I wondered how people would react if I told them this is actually a portrait; as you might know, there’s no figurative imagery in Islamic art. I said, “I would like you to take a moment to close your eyes and imagine this person. If I gave you a piece of paper and a pencil, how would you depict this person?” And then something magical happened: everybody in this room understood that none of the figurative imagery that came out of that exercise would be identical. And I think that’s the beauty of it, that this is an entire new tradition of portraiture. And then, without saying anything, people started clapping. Each person took away some perspective shift.

We’ve talked a lot about how viewing art can foster empathy. What about making art?

Absolutely. I think making and mimicry, or anything involving tactile experiences, helps build empathy. Sometimes it takes time for us to articulate our emotions and faults, and artmaking gives us an opportunity to do that at our own pace. Anything that involves other senses — movement, hearing — are all known to help build empathy.

“What do I know?”seems to be an important question when designing for empathy. What else would you advise people working on this to consider?

I would really welcome museum professionals to think about three things: The first is, “Who is the other?” You know, the clinical definition of empathy is to take the perspective of another, but I tend to believe that we are all one — there is no other. I would like museum professionals to expand the way that they’re framing their questions. If we see the world as one, we tend to harmonize our interaction with that whole because we are an essential part of it. The second thing I would like them to consider is what makes empathy? What are the ingredients? We have to go way back to what we are made of as human beings to figure out how can we use this to expand our human experience. The third part is, what is the relevance of this kind of work? We really need to invite more and more people around the same table.

You have suggested three ways to incorporate empathy into museums, the first being museum culture — the acquisitions and hiring that make museums what they are — and the second being the use of empathetic thinking to improve exhibitions and programming. The third part is sort of the inverse: creating exhibitions/programming that foster empathetic thinking. Do you see these happening simultaneously or should one precede the other?

I think all three have to happen simultaneously, but with intention — pay attention to what is happening and keep tabs on progress. If the leadership of the museum is not empathetic toward its workforce, the experiences and exhibitions that are created by the institution will lack empathy. Empathy is something that cannot be learned linearly, it has to be experienced. And when it is experienced, it’s contagious. But for that to happen, it has to be authentic and sincere. Just because an institution says, “Oh, you know, empathy is in our mission statement,” well congratulations, but what are you doing about it? You have to look in the mirror, you have to consider how collections are made, whose land we’re on, who’s not coming through our doors. It’s going to take a long time, because it requires vulnerability.