Students from Stonebridge World School help Mia staff test and develop empathy tours at Minneapolis Institute of Art.

How “empathy tours” help us see art—and each other—differently

Our tour group is standing in Mia’s African Art galleries facing a terracotta head. It’s from Nigeria and depicts a woman’s face, placid and peaceful, the creases in her neck suggestive of fatty tissue—a sign of wealth and prosperity. It was likely made to memorialize someone who died.

But our tour guide does not linger on these art-historical facts. Instead she asks a question: “How do you think she’s feeling?”

“It looks like she’s disappointed,” says one tour-goer. “She looks chill,” says another. They are fifth-graders, from Stonebridge World School in Minneapolis, among the first students to take an “empathy tour” at Mia.

Students from Stonebridge World School on an “empathy tour” at Mia.

The tours were designed by Mia’s Center for Empathy and the Visual Arts (CEVA), based on the idea that art is a powerful tool for teaching and fostering empathy. Over the past two weeks, six classes of students, from fourth to seventh grades, have been invited to participate. 

The goal is to make the tours collaborative. Students are encouraged to share their own stories, and seek their own meaning in the art. To enable this, the tours are longer than average—about an hour and a half. “It gives us the luxury of delving in deeper,” says Ann Isaacson, one of Mia’s museum educators leading the tours. 

On our tour, several students ask if we will be seeing art from Japan. Though not a scheduled stop, museum educator Sheila McGuire happily changes course to accommodate the request. “Allowing them to look at what they want takes a lot of time, but it’s very important,” she says. 

Giving ownership and agency to participants is integral to the design of these tours. “It’s whatever feels right to them—if it doesn’t feel right we’ll move on,” says McGuire. To be truly collaborative, the tours need to allow time and space for curiosity, contemplation, and reflection.

In the Japanese Art galleries, we examine a series of hanging scrolls depicting monkeys. “Do animals have emotions?” McGuire asks the group. She invites the students to find a monkey that resonates with them, and take a moment to journal about it. “What’s the monkey’s story?” 

The activity is more than an exercise in storytelling, it requires students to recognize emotions in themselves and others. It requires perspective-taking, mindfulness, imagination, and connection. 

The hope is that by fostering these practices, students will feel more connected to the art, their classmates, and their own stories. Of course, to find out if they do, we have to ask. 

Students hold up signs (yes, no, or meh) in response to evaluation questions after their empathy tour.

After the tour, Jeanine Pollard, CEVA’s Research and Project Manager, has the students, teachers, and guides gather outside. She directs three adults to hold signs reading “yes,” “meh,” and “no.” 

Then she gives the students several prompts: “I felt respected by the adults,” “I had fun on my tour.” “I saw art that I could connect to my life.” Question by question, the students migrate toward their answer. 

As they settle into position, Pollard inquires further: “What did the adults do to make you feel respected?” “What would make the tours more fun?” (“More activities!” one student volunteers for the latter). 

“In prototyping these tours, we’re learning from students,” says Pollard. “It’s an iterative process—we’ll look at what worked, what didn’t, and then go back and redesign.”