​How Museums Build Communities through Art and Empathy

Kim Sajet, Director of the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery spoke at our luncheon. Below are some of the topics she discussed.

The original idea of a museum was the increase and diffusion of knowledge.  It was a place where we would put what we thought was important. And often we didn’t even understand what it was that we were collecting. It was a place that was about sciences, humanities, and it was a place of wonder and learning.

Suddenly things started to change. There was a shift away from museums as a center of learning to museums as a form of “edutainment”.  We were having this idea of the blockbuster. It was about spectacle, scarcity of an object, celebrities, and it also was tied to international diplomacy. Museums need to promote the economic impact of their exhibitions and facilities to justify their existence.

I’ve been enamored with the book by Sherry Turkle called “Reclaiming the Conversation.” She refers to Henry David Thoreau who moves to Walden Pond in this little cottage, where there are three chairs.  The first chair is for solitude … to sit there and think about who I am and what I believe, to get a sense of my own self-worth and my belief system. The second chair is for conversation … for me and where I bring a friend. It allows for listening and bouncing ideas off each other. And the third chair is for society … where we build shared values and we can help advance things together.  I think of the museum in that way.

We have yet to use the argument about creating a smart, empathetic, educated community.  And this would be my plea for all museums in their thinking. What we want are people who can have empathy for others, who can be flexible in challenging situations, who can say I’ve never faced this before but let me look at a different way of thinking. 

A form of punishment for society is to not have the critical conversations any more.  One of the things that I think about when I’m doing my programming for our Museum is that technology should add not subtract. 

So let’s review.  Museums were first about the “stuff”, then the economics, and now its about the experience. This is about the relationship you have with the art.  It’s about the experience you have, in the first chair, with yourself.  It’s also about the experience you have with other people. 

Here are some things that I’ve gleaned about your community.  You’ve had some notable artists here, like Max Ernst and Dorothea Tanning.  The whole idea of transcendentalism, surrealism, is very strong in this area. And so, to have a Center of that, which doesn’t exist anywhere else in the United States, would be absolutely incredible. Another thing to think about is artists who are directly communing with the environment, so that you could have a second message which is conservation and caring for the environment.  That could actually be very powerful. 

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