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09.20  The Role of Empathy and Affect in Pro-Social Museum Transformations

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Significant debate has occurred in disciplines outside of a heritage framework in relation to the ability of empathy to act as a catalyst for pro-social change. While some have argued in favour of empathy’s positively oriented transformative abilities, others have dismissed it as a “feel good emotion” that clouds and interferes with processes of cognition. This paper contributes to this debate by discussing ongoing research at “The Mind” exhibition hosted by The Melbourne Museum in Australia, Victoria—an exhibition that has a specific focus on continuing to reduce stigmatized attitudes in relation to mental illness. The research that will be conducted at this site analyzes the extent to which, if at all, “The Mind” exhibition results in the increase of empathetic processing and the subsequent reduction of stigmatized ways of thinking and talking about mental health. In doing so, it deals with the notion of museums as being engaged in political work, and highlights the potential of this research for impacting institutional exhibition policies as well as curatorial practices in their approach to addressing social issues and embodying a social advocacy role.

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