Designing for Empathy in Museum Exhibits: The Empathy Show at ACM Interactivity

Posted by on May 28, 2019 in TechMuse Blog | 0 comments

Designing for Empathy in Museum Exhibits: The Empathy Show at ACM Interactivity

It seems empathy has been in short supply as our culture grapples with fear and anger fanned for political benefit and portable devices that divide our attention. Are there ways museums can facilitate more empathy in our daily lives? Children’s museums have been grappling with this question for years, and emerging are some exhibit techniques — as well as whole exhibits themselves — focusing on empathy.

At the recent Association of Children’s Museums’ Interactivity conference in New Orleans, we gathered to discuss this. Participants included Robin Frisch, Experience Director at Mindsplash, who presented the work of author/designer Brianna Cutts, Anne Fullenkamp, Director of Design at Children’s Museum Pittsburgh, and Brenda Baker, Director of Exhibits at Madison Children’s Museum. I led the session and wrangled media to do live streaming and archiving to broaden the reach.

The session is about an hour long, archived on the YouTube video below, so to make it easier to digest, I’m listing some of the main sections in the outline below. Feel free to dive in, check out sections that are especially interesting to you…

Video sections:

  • 0:00 Intro. (Sorry, the audio isn’t good here, maybe I’m not close enough to the mic. Also, not crazy about the camera angle. Please fast forward to the beginning at 5 minutes where the audio is better).
  • 5:00 Robin Frisch presents Brianna Cutts‘ design theory approach to empathy in exhibits
    • 5:30 three keys: Curiosity, Connection, Compassion
    • Curiosity is the starting point
    • 11:39: “Wait, Watch, Wonder” program out of Toronto
    • 15:50: Empathy starts at about age 3, developmental process
    • 17:40: Compassion, sympathy for others in distress
  • 18:30: Anne Fullenkamp reviews the process on Children’s Museum Pittsburgh’s “XOXO: An Exhibit on Love and Forgiveness”
    • Key elements: giving people space and tools to communicate
    • Traveling to different venues beyond children’s museums
    • Silhouettes, mirrors, telephones: successful techniques for reflection and communication
    • 27:55 Popup version created out of sudden necessity after shooting at Tree of Life Synagogue
    • Release the negative (shredder) and kindness buttons
    • Love letters, photo op
  • 35:05 Brenda Baker of Madison Children’s Museum reviews “Top 10” techniques for cultural and bio-empathy
    • Inclusive exhibit process, immersive environments, scaffolding
    • Collaborative spaces for sharing and kindness
    • Opportunities for emotional connection, celebrating similarities not differences
    • Creating vivid messages on how to empathize
    • Storytelling and listening, WOW experiences
    • Plants and baby animals: the number 1 method up until age 7
  • 53:56 Q&A (hard to hear)
  • 1:03:00 Examples from audience (hard to hear)
  • 1:07:00 bye bye

One of the main points overall: empathy is an outcome we can design exhibits for, whether integrated in small ways in existing exhibits or designed for as the overall outcome of a whole exhibit. It’s a topic worth updating and revisiting, and we talked about doing a future session either at ACM Interactivity or an online session sometime in the future. Send an email to if you’d like to be kept posted.

Anne Fullenkamp, me, Robin Frisch. Brenda Baker, not pictured to the right, is also happy at the end of the session.

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