We are in more urgent need of empathy than ever...

We are in more urgent need of empathy than ever...

In a blog entry dated July 11, 2016 and posted on Art Museum Teaching, Mike Murawski, Director of Education & Public Programs at the Portland Art Museum, wrote:

We museum people need to work together to build a stronger, collective culture of support and advocacy for museum practice based in empathy, inclusion, and social impact. This is some of the most meaningful, relevant work happening in museums right now. People across our institutions—not just educators but directors, curators, marketing staff, board members, donors, etc.—need to be publicly and visibly proud of the programs, exhibitions, and projects that actively embrace individual stories, dialogue about provocative questions, and the diverse and rich lived experiences of those living in our communities.  More comprehensive support for this work can lead to an expanded focus on social impact and community engagement in a museum’s strategic goals and mission, in its exhibition and program planning process, and in its allocation of resources.

Murawski's call for museum-wide practices based in empathy resonated. I started thinking about the research questions we're pursuing at MODA, about all we've learned about process-oriented design education in the past years, and about how lucky we are to be working in a small museum in which educational programs can never really be separate from exhibitions or anything else we do. But, I also began to think about doing it all better — or in a more refined way. Specifically, I'm wondering if we can provide every single visitor to MODA with an experience that involves them in the design process in such a way as to privilege the practice of empathy and other human traits prioritized by the design thinking process?

A little background: In 2011, MODA moved from a downtown location to Midtown Atlanta. Doing so effectively pressed the re-boot button for the museum. While re-defining MODA's mission and vision (2012) and creating a comprehensive strategic plan that is still guiding the museum's rapid growth (2013), we aggressively built a youth education program that pairs the creative problem-solving capabilities of design thinking with STEAM tools such as 3D printing, circuitry, and coding.

We started down this path because we saw potential for growth in earned income — but now it's become much, much more. At the time of our move, MODA already had a highly successful LEGO robotics camp and we realized that we could offer many other opportunities for families looking to supplement in-school learning with out-of-school educational programs. We hoped that adding weekend classes, field trips, after school programs, and home school programs to our curriculum would allow us to continue working in a field in which we had an established reputation, while also providing opportunities to earn income and expand our audience and membership base. We also believed that learning located at the intersection of design thinking and STEAM was one of the more important and immediate things that MODA could contribute to the metro-Atlanta community. 

As it expanded, our education program began to evolve rapidly.  In 2013, we wrote educational guidelines that structured our work for several years. In 2015, Brigid Drozda joined us as a design thinking and innovation educator and challenged the entire museum staff to think more deeply and holistically about the design process and to focus on the values and attitudes implicit in design thinking. In just a few short years, our ideas about education have evolved so much that in 2016 we've convened a board/staff/volunteer advisory committee to help us think about challenges and opportunities and to strategize about the path we'll take in the future. That work is still underway.

This journey has taught us a great deal, but one of the biggest surprises came from the reception of our work by educators, community organizers, city and county administrators, parents, and others who experience it or with whom we share it. While everyone appreciates the potential of our design thinking/STEAM programs to increase science, technology, engineering, and math literacy while empowering children to creatively address real-world challenges, they are passionate about the potential for our programs to champion, model, and teach the values and attitudes that design thinking privileges: empathy for others, critical thinking, tolerance of other people's ideas, learning through trial and error, and the ability to accomplish something through collaboration.

 MODA visitors playing an empathy-building, collaborative photo booth arcade game,  Ninja Shadow Warrior , in our 2013 exhibition,  XYZ: Alternative Voices in Game Design.  Game designed by Kaho Abe.

MODA visitors playing an empathy-building, collaborative photo booth arcade game, Ninja Shadow Warrior, in our 2013 exhibition, XYZ: Alternative Voices in Game Design. Game designed by Kaho Abe.

All of this seems especially relevant in our unstable world filled with senseless violence and intolerance. And it makes me wonder how MODA can help lead change. I am encouraged that our work — with its emphasis on process, values, and attitudes —  has been well received. I'm excited to keep working alongside MODA's board, staff, and volunteers to shape an education program that addresses the needs of our contemporary world. But — and this takes us back to the original question — shouldn't, couldn't our focus be wider? Why are we working in boxes and categories? Can't we shape exhibitions and programs across the museum so as to provide every single visitor with an immersive, process-oriented experience, whether they engage in a formal education program or not? Can a visit to MODA give visitors opportunities to try on new ways of thinking and a variety of interpersonal skills in a safe environment? Shouldn't our education advisory board be thinking about everything that happens in the museum and not just our "education programs" as we lay out a plan for the future.

More questions mean lots of opportunities for prototyping and testing potential answers. Stay tuned.

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