Meryl Streep and Empathy in Museums


I often think about museums when encountering popular culture or thinking about current events.  I couldn’t help but think about museums while watching this year’s Golden Globes award ceremony.

This year the Hollywood Foreign Press Association presented Meryl Streep with the Cecil B. deMille Award for lifetime achievement.

In her acceptance speech, Streep made some points that museums should take note of.  If you haven’t seen the speech in its entirety, please take the time to watch it.


So how does this speech connect to museums?

There’s been some good discussion in our field about making museums empathetic and places where visitors can become more empathetic.  If you haven’t seen it already, check out The Empathetic Museum and Mike Murawski’s thoughts about the need and urgency of empathy in museums.

Streep used her speech to teach everyone that an actor’s profession is one of empathy.

“An actor’s only job is to enter the lives of people who are different than us and let you (the audience) feel what that feels like,” she said.  That’s empathy.

I like the concise definition of empathy on Google:  “The ability to understand and share the feelings of another.”

An actor, according to Streep, uses empathy in order to play the role of another human being—to understand.  Then, the actor shares those feelings with the audience, allowing the audience to understand the other.

At museums, like the movies, we encounter the lives of others, whether they are people who lived in the past or those who created or are the subject of artwork.  Museums help us be empathetic with the natural world.  Museums help us understand our relationship to others and our place within the universe.  Those of us who work in museums have an opportunity to help our visitors and guests understand the other.

Streep went on to say to her peers:  “We have to remind each other of the privilege and the responsibility of the act of empathy.”

Let us in museums not take the privilege of act of empathy for granted.  Let’s use empathy within our staffs, which is a prerequisite for sharing it with our visitors.

Let’s use empathy to understand our content and collections so that we can help our visitors be empathetic as well.

Let us not forget for a second the responsibility of the act of empathy in museums.  It is our responsibility to practice and share empathy to fulfill our role of creating a more empathetic society in our communities.

What can museums learn from theater, film, and actors about creating empathy in others?  How can the practices within these fields to create empathy be adopted in museums?  Please share your thoughts in the comments.