Building Empathy Through Art

By  Michelle Carpenter, Docent, Phoenix Art Museum; Regional Director, NDSC (August 2018)

As a volunteer at the American Alliance of Museums Annual Meeting and Expo in May, I was fortunate to observe and participate in several workshops. Many centered around the theme of diversity and inclusiveness. A session titled, Empathy-Building through Museums, drew over 200 attendees who experienced first-hand what empathy-building might look and feel like in a museum setting. Excellent resources on the topic are available online, and select links are shared below.

Empathy 1

The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines empathy as the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner. 

Museums are uniquely equipped to serve as platforms that foster empathy. They hold a mirror to society, helping visitors develop empathy through storytelling and new narratives, experiential learning, awe and wonder, and contemplation. We learn through practice and engagement. Art can be used to help us understand personal, sensitive and even uncomfortable emotions.

The Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence is at the forefront of empathy training for youth and adults. Here are a few examples of what people learn through empathy classes, in their own words…

                   “How to express myself, to know how others are feeling”
                   “To express my emotions more fluently and proficiently.”
                   “To put names to feelings.”
                   “The first idea isn’t always the most original.”
                   “To be original, be bold, create.”
                   “Knowing that creativity uses elements that you can practice in day to day life.

At the end of our conference workshop, participants were able to identify with several of these statements. How did we get there?

Empathy 3

We gathered in small groups, with a print of a portrait placed before us in the middle of each table. Through sustained observation of the image, along with dialogue and use of the Mood Meter, we gradually shifted our perspectives on the subject before us. The Mood Meter is used widely in schools, workplaces and institutions to help us perceive and understand emotions accurately.  It is even available as an app!

Empathy 2

Context matters. The more information we have, the more nuanced our perception. In this exercise, three clues were provided by the facilitator, one by one, with further reflection and discussion as we learned about the subject of the painting. With no knowledge of, or information about, the individual we tried to “read” his facial expressions and body language to articulate his place on the Mood Meter. Was he melancholy, determined, or resigned? Each member of our group shared his/her own perspective. Often, we each had quite differing views. The first “fact” was then presented, and we used the Mood Meter once again to identify a specific mood or emotion based on the new information.

Fact #1: This man experienced great loss in his life, losing both his father in his early 20s and wife in his early 30s, leaving him a single father of an infant.

As we learned this new clue about the subject our empathy for him grew.

Fact #2: This man is a lawyer, but always wanted to be an artist.

The anonymous figure before us was taking shape.

Fact #3: This man is my father and I am the artist (of this artwork).

At the end of the exercise, we felt an emotional connection with the subject and were able to recognize the progression of our empathy toward him using the visual tool and nuanced mood labels.

Empathy 4

This exercise lends itself well to a gallery experience led by a docent/guide. By focusing on a portrait, then gradually creating the context through the sharing of clues, visitors can experience the shifting ideas and reactions to the subject based on added information. We left the workshop feeling we had honed an important skill and realized the power of empathy. Museum visitors have an opportunity to leave the gallery feeling the same way.

Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence

American Alliance of Museum

Fostering Empathy Through Museums, by Elif Gokcigdem. The “Look inside” feature shows additional resource links.

The Empathetic Museum


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