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In pursuit of connection: exploring visitors’ empathy in culturally-centered museums

Thesis by Steffi Morrison (2019)

Empathy cultivates the social bonds that hold us together. Yet at a time of great need for mutual understanding, research has shown a decline in this critical capacity. This study explored the nature of adult visitors’ empathy in museums that focus on the history, culture, and art of a particular ethnic or cultural group. The researcher interviewed 60 visitors in three culturally-centered museums in Seattle, Washington. Results showed that the majority of study participants perceived feeling a high level of empathy during their visit. Study participants most frequently referenced a specific historical moment, person, or group in the description of the empathy they felt. Emotional responses were nuanced and varied – visitors reported positive, neutral, and negative sentiments. Study participants attributed a range of aspects from the museum experience to empathy elicitation, including: viewing specific objects and artifacts, interacting with the design of the physical space or exhibition, and absorbing particulars of historical information presented. Empathy was found to be deeply personal, derived from the visitor’s personal experiences and from their close relationships. These findings suggest that culturally-centered museums can and do foster empathy in their visitors.

Keywords: Class of 2019, culturally specific museums, empathy, social sciences, museum studies, cultural resource management, museology


Morrison, S., & Luke, J. J. (2019). In pursuit of connection : Exploring visitors’ empathy in culturally-centered museums. [University of Washington Libraries].