Designing for Empathy has recently been submitted for publication (Rowman & Littlefield, 2019). It is a follow up to Fostering Empathy through Museums (Rowman & Littlefield, 2016, edited by Elif Gokcigdem. Studio Tectonic principal, Seth Frankel, contributed a chapter looking at the role of proximity in designing for empathy within exhibitions. The chapter center on the Niagara Fall Underground Railroad Heritage Center in New York as an example of ways in which exhibitions and programs can use proximity to build connections between content and audiences.
From the editor’s description:
Designing for Empathy is a volume of twenty-five essays contributed by multidisciplinary thought leaders, collectively exploring the state of empathy for its design elements that might lead to positive behavior change and paradigm shift towards compassionate worldviews and actions.
As museums are currently shaping their tools for fostering empathy as an intentional outcome of museum experiences, the idea of empathy-building is shaping them back as socially relevant institutions that increasingly value diversity, accessibility, and equality. This is a non-linear, multi-layered, and multi-dimensional transformation that requires multidisciplinary, cross-industries, and cross-sectors alliances for its sustainability. The potential of this collective transformation effort includes the invention of unconventional, evidence-based, and sustainable solutions that can be scaled up beyond the walls of traditional museums to help eliminate the empathy-deficit in our world.
Designing for Empathy expands our understanding of empathy through a multidisciplinary exploration in three parts: “The Object of our Empathy” explores how we define and perceive the “Other”; “The Alchemy of Empathy” brings together fifteen design elements of empathy that might lead to transformative experiences and compassionate worldviews; and, “The Scope and the Spectrum of Empathy” discusses the importance and the potential of positioning empathy as a shared value across disciplines, industries, and sectors.
Designing for Empathy will inspire and empower those individuals and institutions that are interested in intentionally designing for empathy to create a more compassionate world.
An excerpt from the chapter:
It’s no simple matter to arouse museum visitors’ interest in the history of people who lived far away and long ago — people we don’t understand and don’t care to know. “Connection is critical in building empathic relationships that may lead to compassion and understanding. This is how proximity can be useful in the work of museum exhibit developers and educators.
This case study looks at the development of a new institution, the purpose of which is to build connection between viewers and a specific history that may not relate to their own lived experiences. The viewer’s distance from the exhibit’s content — along with the viewer’s ability to productively internalize and make meaning of it — is a key factor in determining whether or not empathy will be effectively created.