I recently read an article about a project at the Brooklyn Museum where folks who have been charged with a minor offense can avoid jail or court appearance by participating in an art empathy program.
I’m not sure what the program entails, but looking at the art they use, I can begin to imagine. In the museum, we often talk about how artifacts & art tell stories. We love to tell the ones that show the beauty of humanity, and the thoughtfulness and care that an artist puts in to their work.
But those artifacts often tell hard stories too. Sad ones about challenging personal experiences, or about the systemic hardships that whole groups of people face. We wouldn’t have such beautiful Yoruba works in the west Africa gallery without the history of the Atlantic Slave Trade. The beauty of the rocks and minerals stand in contrast to the dark scars on the land that mining causes. Our Indigenous collections hold legacies of theft and genocide.
Each of these stories are complex, when we use the word story it’s a convenient shorthand, but if you’re thinking of children’s stories that’s not what I mean. In these stories, there are no neat categories, no “good characters” and “bad characters” – although there are plenty of humans, more than humans, and other beings too. In the modern world with so many demands on our time and attention it feels (to me at least) that binary thinking provides some easy answers to challenging questions. Yet this is the kind of thinking that leads to seeing “ourselves” and “the other” everywhere we look. It’s the kind of thinking that encourages judgement instead of compassion. It’s the kind of thinking that doesn’t allow time to really consider all the stories.
If we want to really understand, we need to take honest looks at the stories in these artifacts, and sometimes that requires a lot of courage. We might discover things about our past, or even our present that make us uncomfortable. We may see reflections of our legacy that we don’t recognize ourselves within. We might have to grapple with new ways of thinking about things we thought we knew. All of this is hard work.
This is the kind of work that it seems to me this program at the Brooklyn Museum is doing: having a close look at a work, and reflecting on what it says about society, our world, and ourselves. Their work shows that this type of engagement can be really productive – and by extension, that museums that help us think in new ways can be really productive. When I’m working in the museum, I’m always working at this. To try and help guests and students see the stories that are there with a compassion that helps us all exist in kinder ways. Sometimes this means working through some challenging ideas, but I believe as long as we’re working on them together, we’ll get somewhere new, and hopefully better.