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Empathy Check (and why it’s not a cliché)

Category: Exhibitions
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The Not Hate doll is part of The Colored Girls Museum collection. All photos by Victoria Edwards

This article originally appeared in the July/August 2021 issue of Museum magazinea benefit of AAM membership.


An exhibition on African American women’s hair became a space for the African diasporic perspective to be seen, heard, valued, and better understood.

Every person has a role to play in their community. Are you aware of how your role affects everyone around you?

If everyone was so aware, would it not benefit the collective well-being of society? If empathy was part of our daily thought process, inclusive collaboration would occur across all professional disciplines, resulting in wise decision-making that benefits the world entirely. So, what is stopping us?

Being empathetic can be difficult in our society because “critical skills such as empathizing are often left to circumstance, and thus easily fall prey to the dangers of bias and manipulation,” Elif M. Gokcigdem wrote in her 2016 book Fostering Empathy Through Museums. But we can no longer leave empathetic development to circumstance or optional awareness.

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Victoria Edwards at the grand opening of “Queens: The Weight of Our Crown” at The Colored Girls Museum.

Designing for empathy in educational spaces, such as museums, libraries, art galleries, and community centers, can initiate invaluable conversations across communities. This past year’s societal tensions, political resistance, and revolutionary movements have awakened many in the United States. It is crucial that we create shared spaces where people from all walks of life feel safe to inquire about history and current events and hear educated perspectives.

We also need to ensure that more than one voice and perspective speak through the content and design in these educational spaces. Empirically, it is infuriating knowing that my African American voice does not hold equal weight with the white “Western” perspective, especially if the institution preaches inclusion and equity. How can an institution possibly aspire to have a unifying effect on its audiences when it only discusses one perspective’s experiences, or when it displays multiple, but the history is subject to revisionism? Authentic empathetic spaces are only possible if cross-departmental exhibition design teams include more than one cultural perspective.

“Queens: The Weight of Our Crown,” is an exhibition to build empathetic connections among women of the African diaspora around the subject of hair and restore some of the lost identity by revealing the rich histories of our beautifying culture. It was initially hosted at The Colored Girls Museum in Philadelphia March–September 2019. Throughout the exhibition development process, I collaborated with an Empathy Development Team (EDT) of 10 African Americans, five white Americans, and one Asian American, and together we developed an exhibition that represented 100 percent of women of African diaspora who visited.

The Exhibition

My hair is the perfect reflection of who I am. It’s tough, resilient, sensitive, and misunderstood. Growing up, I always had to explain my hair to my friends and answer to family about fixing its appearance. Not allowed to swim or sweat too much while playing if my hair was done. Not allowed to move when my mom blew on my scalp as she got in close with the scalding hot comb to press my edges. Not allowed to wear it naturally without the proper puddings, crèmes, and conditioners, or it would dry out and break off. I have always known that hair is a major factor in beauty, and it has made me question my worth on more than a few occasions.

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A group from the University of Pennsylvania visits the exhibition.

“Queens: The Weight of Our Crown” aims to initiate authentic connections and conversations around the subject of hair within African diasporic communities. We rarely have the chance to openly discuss our cultures’ complexities without judgment or with openness to understanding each other’s perspectives. However, recent social movements, like The Crown Act (thecrownact.com), celebrate African diasporic hair culture, raise awareness of the biases and systematic injustices that plague our society, and prove that we are ready to have these difficult conversations. The exhibition sets out to restore some of the lost identity in the African diasporic community and share the history of our beautifying culture.

Many modern hair products and styles are the same oils, herbs, and designs Africans had in their lifestyles centuries before the Western slave trade. However, captors stripped African Americans of their cultural characteristics during slavery, and this exhibition confronts those adversities and provides a constructive way to approach the conversation. “Queens: The Weight of Our Crown” is also a prideful experience for the African diasporic communities that addresses the various tensions concerning identity, color consciousness, anti-Black mentality, and the freedom to choose our style regardless of judgment and bias.

The first iteration of the exhibition had three main sections. Queen Style was a small gallery of ornate picture frames featuring natural African hairstyles from the 1400s–1800s. Visitors read about how these styles were used as spiritual interactions with gods and as a complex language system displaying a person’s religion, social status, and regional loyalty. Queen Style celebrated the intricate skill and beauty of African hair design before the influences of Western culture and provided an opportunity for the primary audience to admire the origin of our beauty.

Next, The Judgement Zone recognized how slavery and generations of external oppression have negatively impacted how women of African diaspora view themselves and each other. It included multiple opportunities to help visitors understand what internal oppression looks like and which thoughts we need to be conscious of to make societal change.

The last section, Hair Culture, explains how the Black hair care industry is now worth billions of dollars and has proven to be a tool of “racial uplift” through, for example, the work of hair care and cosmetics entrepreneurs Annie Malone and Madam C. J. Walker. However, the Black community isn’t benefiting from much of the industry. As a call to action, we provided information on local Black-owned beauty supply stores that give women of color the freedom to choose their styles and still care for their hair. Lastly, we provided a calming reflection space with books and prompts for visitors to reclaim their crowns with pride.

The Process

Through the use of an Empathy Development Team, this project aims to impact exhibition curators and designers dedicated to developing empathetic spaces for the betterment of society. Collaboratively, the EDT needs to create thought-provoking exhibitions that reach the institutions’ typical audiences; appeal to new, diverse demographics; and present both groups with a solution to deep communication issues and cultural misunderstandings.

To ensure our work stayed empathetic during the exhibition development, we had weekly check-ins with the EDT on content, text, and then design to check my blind spots and get honest feedback. The team was mostly women of color of varying ages, which was invaluable to the content development because they were able to add perspectives and confirm nostalgic moments in the narration that authentically reached them.

This is not to say that the other members of the team weren’t equally valuable in the process, but our team reflected my audience groups, which was evident in the results of the summative evaluation. I valued every member’s opinions and thoughts equally, and if we ever reached a moment of conflict, we addressed it as a team. In the end, if I made an executive decision, it was well-informed, and the team was aware of the reasoning behind it. This made a grueling and intensive process easier to navigate.

To ensure we provided a solution to deep communication issues and cultural misunderstandings, I utilized the power of storytelling. A “transferential space” is a designed area for people to share their narratives to provoke deeper understanding, transfer knowledge, and take on emotions and memories that they did not experience firsthand. Through the physical objects on display, interpretation in the panels, and a crucial talk-back experience, everyone in the space—regardless of demographic—began to understand how hair is inherently tied to our identity and the pain its over-policing has caused women of African diaspora for generations.

The Colored Girls Museum is a memoir museum that honors the stories, experiences, and history of women of color. Since its primary audience is women of African diaspora, this was the perfect setting to make my primary audience feel welcome and comforted while having difficult conversations. To ensure that any visitors who were of a different demographic understood the exhibition’s goals and mission, the introduction panel explained the atmosphere before they entered the space. Due to the smaller size of the institution, a docent led each group and was available to answer any questions after the tour.

Empathetic Reactions

According to the survey data, all of the visitors who identified as being of African diaspora felt that the exhibition represented their story and they could relate to the content personally. Thankfully, The Colored Girls Museum’s empathetic atmosphere made visitors feel comfortable enough to be honest in their responses.

For example, when asked if the exhibition narrative expressed their story, one visitor responded, “Yes, I’m consistently asked if I am mixed because of my hair and complexion and feeling the need to prove myself as an African American woman.” Another visitor shared how the exhibition narrative represented “my transition from society’s image of how my hair should look to my embrace of wearing natural hairstyles with pride.”

“Queens: The Weight of Our Crown” also created cross-cultural and generational empathetic connections. Twenty-five percent of white visitors said that the narrative represented their personal story. One visitor who identified as a white woman 55 or older confessed that she connected to the exhibition because “my daughter has hair that is often hard to manage. I realize I may have unintentionally made her feel shame about it.” This speaks to how vital this conversation is across cultures.

Visitors who felt that the exhibition didn’t represent their narrative directly still expressed empathetic connection. One visitor wrote that the narrative is “not a part of my story, but I learned details of the importance of African American women and their hair/worth identity.” And she was not alone in that discovery. Visitors were able to perceive people’s emotions even if culturally dissimilar to theirs, assess their situational circumstances, and broaden their perspective.

One day, I stood anxiously watching a tour of University of Pennsylvania students navigate “Queens: The Weight of Our Crown,” and I noticed a young woman of African diaspora standing still and holding her mouth as her eyes cautiously scanned The Judgement Zone space. The room displays an auction block with shaved hair on the pedestal to exemplify the loss of identity that enslaved people endured when they were sheared to be sold. The back of the auction block features various slave auction, runaway, skin-lightening, and hair-straightening ads from the period, all with in-depth descriptions and objectification of Black bodies. The space prompts visitors to face color-consciousness and anti-Blackness that stemmed from slavery and introduces language we still use that perpetuates those mentalities.

Her reaction to the area made me walk over to introduce myself and get her honest opinion. She smiled with tears in her eyes and muttered, “Oh my God, thank you! You have no idea how much I needed this, like I have chills.” We spoke more about her hair journey, teared up over a few shared experiences, and hugged before she left to rejoin her group. At that moment, I was humbled that I successfully created a healing experience that is much overdue, and I was overwhelmed by the knowledge that the exhibition needs to reach more people.

It was a privilege to witness women of African diaspora share their lived experiences openly, be honest with themselves about their outlooks, and then ask each other for advice on moving forward. I witnessed students of varying nationalities move through the space cautiously and eventually feel comfortable enough to look closer at the objects and displays to understand every detail of the content.

This exhibition is proof that there are ways to orchestrate empathetic lived experiences for visitors that allow them to explore cultures, discover new perspectives, and incorporate what they have learned into their outlook. If we have the ability to create empathetic experiences, then we have the responsibility to do so.

Creating Your Empathy Development Team

An empathetic work environment is essential in developing empathetic exhibitions for the public. Following are some guidelines for building your institution’s Empathy Development Team (EDT).

  • The EDT must have varying perspectives and skill sets (curation, content development, design, programming, etc.) to effectively reach your audience groups.
  • The team dynamics will shift negatively if members do not check their egos at the door. A huge part of checking your ego is being honest with yourself and looking for your own experiential blind spots and biases before they enter the workplace.
  • Respectfully contact representative members of the community and audience to begin collaboration early in the exhibition development process. Compensate these partners.
  • Find ways to give visitors permission to participate in the narrative along with a call to action.
  • Ensure audiences feel welcome to explore the space. If you are unsure of how it feels for people different than you, find out by surveying and prototyping.
  • Explore all means of “transferential” spaces. That transference storytelling moment comes when one’s memory transforms into someone else’s experience.

Victoria Edwards is an exhibition developer and designer who is passionate about creating spaces that tell captivating stories to educate and connect diverse audiences.

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