11.00 Experiencing Mixed Emotions in the Museum: Empathy and Memory in Visitors’ Responses to Histories of Migration
Research involving display analysis and interviews with staff and visitors has shown empathy to be an important feature of interpretative strategies in museums addressing migration. Studies also suggest that this topic is predisposed to encourage emotional and affective responses. More specifically, it appears that some audio-visual interpretive strategies may be especially effective at encouraging visitors to engage empathetically with “others.” Studies foreground the affective qualities of film, oral histories, talking heads, large-scale photography, and art-installation works, although these approaches are not without criticism.
Destination Tyneside (Discovery Museum, Newcastle, UK) is an example of a museum display where the curator employed interpretative strategies to explicitly encourage empathetic responses from visitors on the subject of migration to the region. We have been conducting small-scale, in-depth visitor studies on Destination Tyneside with long-term residents and recent migrants to understand how people may, or may not, relate to the display. Our methods involve working with fifteen participants through:
1) a preliminary focus-group discussion;
2) a visit to the gallery, wearing glasses with in-built audio-visual capture;
3) a follow-up interview with visitors in pairs to discuss their responses to the gallery;
4) a review of the audio-visual capture with the participants to prompt a self-reflexive account of their visit.
This methodology builds on existing visitor research in several ways. We have analyzed visitors’ “entrance narratives” regarding their sense of place and belonging, and to what extent they consider migration to be relevant to their own lives. We have identified that the audio-visual and interactive interpretive strategies adopted by the gallery are successful in engaging visitors with the intended themes and with personalized accounts of the past. Visitors demonstrate clear engagement with the display’s empathetic strategies, such as perspective-taking, although whether this fundamentally changes their view of migration is much harder to gauge.
What emerges clearly from our study is the importance of taking account of other pre-existing, emotionally charged narratives that come to the surface for many long-term local residents when visiting such displays. These emotional narratives clearly frame these visitors’ responses to the gallery. For example, the gallery positively celebrates the booming industries that attracted migrants to the region in the past. However, many local visitors express emotions of disappointment and sadness about the perceived loss of local and national pride due to the post-industrial decline of the heavy manufacturing industries that have marked this area’s recent history. These commonly-expressed emotions are expressed through recurring tropes, turns of phrases, and narrative structures which cumulatively function as memory “schemata.”
The ways in which these unanticipated, wider memory schemata interplay with the emotional responses expressively invited by the museum display raise important questions about the complexity of understanding the museum visit in terms of affective practices. It requires to consider to what extent different kinds of emotions may come into conflict with, frame, or support, one another. It also alerts us to the importance of attending to the interplay between individual, personal emotional responses to specific displays and those which are connected to broader discourses of identity circulating within certain memory communities.