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From the President: Practicing Empathetic Leadership

Category: Influence of Museums
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Photo credit: girl with red hat on Unsplash

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


Like many of you, my family and I have really missed going to museums. Until last spring, I was averaging a museum visit a week! And I often joke that my 8-year-old has visited more museums than most grown-ups. For her, the excitement of the virtual museum, classroom, or performance wore off a long time ago, and she longed the most to be in places with real people, authentic art and artifacts, and engaging multidimensional experiences.

As soon as museum doors began reopening in the Washington, DC, area, we donned our double masks, packed our hand sanitizer, and rushed back to the familiar, beautiful, and inspiring exhibits we missed; the new museums that engaged our senses and sparked our curiosity; and many of the local historic sites we have wanted to experience and learn from. It was nothing short of joyful and deeply therapeutic.

After so much isolation and suffering this past year, it comes as no surprise that experts warn of a second pandemic within the COVID-19 pandemic: the current and delayed impacts on mental health, including rising anxiety and depression. Our museums have a critical role to play in our communities’ recovery and rebuilding.

People often visit museums to take care of their mental health, to escape or process traumatic experiences, and to get reinspired and reenergized for brighter times ahead. Museums are also spaces that can foster greater empathy among individuals in service of creating healthier, more inclusive communities.

Earlier this year, AAM conducted a survey on the impacts of the pandemic on individuals in the museum field. As I read through the findings of this survey, I paused at a particular data point. Despite experiencing significant personal hardships, respondents said their greatest concern was for the well-being of colleagues. This empathy and compassion is incredible and something that feels unique to our field. As you are reopening your museum for your communities or finding new employment opportunities in the field, please be sure to practice this type of care for yourselves as well. And continue to look out for one another, particularly those who have experienced the disproportionate impacts of the pandemic—whether due to job loss, experiencing xenophobia and racism, or losing loved ones.

As we continue the long-term process of rebuilding from the financial devastation of the pandemic, we need to embody these same values and this vigilance by practicing empathetic leadership. How can we create workplaces and structures that recognize the humanity in our colleagues? Workplaces that make everyone feel safe, valued, and supported during a crisis and during the best of times? In the past year, museums made great advances in utilizing their digital infrastructure to not only bring the museum experience online, but also to create effective remote workplaces. How can we take the lessons we learned to create less rigid and more flexible employment opportunities that work for everyone?

Let’s be hopeful and energized for a new horizon. But let’s also be deliberate in building what’s next. AAM will continue to be with you every step of the way as we evaluate our changing environment and provide you with the resources you need for a better, stronger, more equitable future.

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