We live in a world where we spend more time isolated on our phones, email, social media, and the like, than engaging in face-to-face social interactions. Scientific studies show that empathy levels have declined dramatically in the last 10 years. But all hope is not lost! One’s capacity for empathy is fluid, and can grow with focus and practice. Art and the Museum provide perfect vehicles for such learning experiences.
A recent collaboration with the Birmingham Museum of Art, the Birmingham Alabama Chapter of Links, Incorporated, and Phillips Academy teachers engaged Phillips’ students with an empathy experience and “illustrated the tremendous value of the Birmingham Museum of Art’s program for the visually impaired,” comments Torrey Van Antwerp DeKeyser, Executive Director of the EyeSight Foundation of Alabama. She elaborates, “Not only does the Museum offer an innovative way for those with vision impairment to experience some of its artistic treasures, it also provides a tangible way to understand what it is like to navigate our world with limited or no vision.”
The Phillips Academy students are members of the JUNA of Alabama, a student-run Model United Nations Assembly for students in grades six, seven, and eight designed to increase awareness of worldwide issues, how the United Nations operates, and stresses the importance of diplomacy and problem-solving among countries. Each participating American school is assigned a country to research and paired with a classroom in that country. Philips Academy was assigned Liberia, and all the students in their paired classroom at the Liberian School for the Blind happen to be visually impaired.
“The BMA has offered its Visually Impaired Program for over 20 years, so we were in a unique position to offer this special program for the Philips students. We had not only the equipment to simulate common vision impairments – special goggles, glasses, and blindfolds – but also trained staff, docents, and past experience with empathy programs to help guide the Philips students,” commented Kristi McMillan, Assistant Curator of Education for Visitor Engagement. The students’ advisors met with Education staff over the course of the fall to design a program to help them understand some of the physical challenges their Liberian counterparts might face. Their empathy experience at the Museum included a Visually Impaired Program tour, a debriefing discussion with the students, and a studio activity.
On Friday, January 24, 2014, the students arrived for a VIP tour of the American and 19th-century galleries. Each student wore goggles, glasses, or a blindfold to simulate vision impairments – so that they could understand what a museum experience might be like for their Liberian peers. Museum docents and assistants guided the students through the Museum, helping them safely navigate to and through the galleries, and to help with stools, seating, and gloves. At each artwork, docents used special techniques like verbal description of the artworks to help students envision the masterpiece before them. Students also participated in the program through touch, as they explored tactile models of the artworks. A particularly rewarding component of the tour is the ability to touch (with gloved hands and guided assistance) a bronze sculpture in the Museum. “I can’t say enough about how organized and professional – but fun and engaging – the tour was for the students. A couple of them best described their experience as ‘life-changing’ in an interview with the media following the tour,” shared Links member Martha Emmett.
Even though most later described a sense of wariness and helplessness during the tour experience, the students all did their best to immerse themselves in the experience. In the wrap-up discussion, the students spoke candidly about what they learned and how they felt. Links member Carnetta Davis observed, “this has been a very enlightening experience for the students, showing them how they can bring together art and the lives of the visually impaired to make a real connection with the kids in Liberia. They’ve developed empathy for the blind and can begin to understand what it is like to deal with an impairment of any kind.” When asked after the tour if they would be able to be blind, students commented that “It would be really hard. I wouldn’t be used to it.” Another student said, “I don’t think I could be blind because it would be hard to trust people to take me everywhere I needed to go.” And if you are wondering if the students began to feel empathy, one described that the tour experience “shows how people who live with a visual impairment are treated and how you can treat them better.”
Museum Artist-in-Residence Toby Richards then facilitated a studio activity to help the students use texture to create a quilt square. Each square told a unique story that will be translated into Braille for the Liberian students to read. Richards described the experience as, “the spiritual and universal connection between my hands creating art, the American students who made a tactile quilt square, and the students in Liberia who will feel the quilt and read the stories in Braille. It was a transformative experience.” One student wanted to make an eye on her quilt to let the kids in Liberia know that “we are watching over them and protecting them from afar.” Another made a quilt with a piano and music notes because “it is what I enjoy, and they can also listen even if they can’t see.”
This is one example of how the Museum is exploring ways to help visitors develop empathy for others via art. We offer visitors an opportunity to unplug, relax, and refresh. We extoll the virtues of art and its capacity to trigger emotions, memories, reflections, and changes in perspective. Many of our programs and interpretation efforts are designed to maximize these personal connections between viewers and artworks. The Museum can tailor experiences like this one for other schools and organizations. For more information, please call 205.254.2643.