Expectations of Empathy

If museums are uniquely situated locations for empathetic encounters, it’s interesting to think about what an effective outcome would look like from different perspectives within the museum (curatorial, artistic, and administrative, among others). I bet each would look very different.

Museum work can almost be psychologically organized according to what type of (and how much) empathy is expected from the various professions that fall under its purview. From a curatorial perspective, minimally, it is absolutely crucial to cognitively empathize in order to put on a successful exhibition (though I think a truly inspired curator is able to affectively empathize as well). Affective empathy, in abundance, is something that is expected of artists, but not necessarily of administrators.

In the context of the museum, it is also interesting to point out how these discrepancies in expected empathy are valued. For instance, curators (as salaried employees of museum) benefit from stable salaries and health insurance but tend to keep low profiles. Artists suffer from notoriously unstable and often inadequate wages but receive perhaps more cultural capital than anyone else in a museum context.

Thinking about all of this, I wonder: if most humans are inclined towards one type of empathy over another, how productive is it to encourage museum workers to develop other types of empathy? Is one kind of empathy more feasible to develop than another?

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