09.00 Empathy as a Register of Engagement in Heritage Making: The Making and Withholding of Compassion
This paper explores the role that empathy, as both a skill and an emotion, plays in the processes of politicized and self-conscious heritage-making among visitors to heritage sites and museums in the United States, England, and Australia. Debates about the role of empathy in museology and heritage studies have tended to focus on the utility of empathy for triggering “learning” experiences in heritage and museum visitors. Some commentators, David Lowenthal most notably among them, have argued that empathy is an empty “feel good” emotion of dubious utility in curatorial and interpretive pedagogy. Others have argued that empathy can work to trigger learning.
The core argument of this paper is that empathetic visitor responses to museum and heritage interpretations are significant, but defy assessment as being either positive or negative. Rather, there are complex intensities of feeling, drawing on a range of skills, used in processing empathetic responses. These feelings and skills can both hinder and facilitate learning and cognitive engagement. More importantly, certain intensities of empathy cannot simply be seen as an engagement with “learning,” but rather work to provide deep and self-conscious reinforcement of an individual visitor’s engagement with politicized values about the meaning and nature of both the past and present.
To develop this argument, the paper explores the range of expressions of empathetic engagement made by visitors during qualitative interviews to a range of heritage and history museums and sites. It maps empathetic responses as a key “register of engagement” with heritage. In doing so, I identify variations in empathetic responses, from the vague and superficial “I feel sad,” which works to trivialize the experiences and histories of people in the past, and the legacies that they may have for contemporary social and political issues, to deep and imaginative acts of compassion. In the latter register, individuals use their understanding of their empathetic response to do a range of things, one of which may be to engage in learning through deepening their understanding or changing their views about either the past or the present. However, learning is not usually what is done with deep and sincere empathy. Rather, deep empathy, which may range from open distress to flinty anger, can lead to affirming reinforcement of not simply the entrance narratives with which a visitor arrived at the heritage site or museum, but more importantly their own political values and aspirations that underpin those narratives. In contrast, the engagement that operates within the vague or superficial end of the register, values that underlie indifference, are both reinforced and justified.
Drawing on recent research on the emotional nature of conservative politics, the paper illustrates how heritage performances undertaken within a deeper empathetic register of engagement, almost by definition, reinforce progressive political readings of the past and the present. Those on the shallow and superficial end of the engagement register will tend to reinforce conservative readings of the past and present. Moreover, a pragmatic reading of current debates in the social sciences about emotion and imagination, and debates from political philosophy about recognition, are used to identify the wider social and political consequences of both deep and shallow empathetic visitor heritage-making.