Why every city needs an Empathy Museum

Just as the world’s major cities now have Holocaust Museums, it is time they all established Empathy Museums too. Their purpose would be nothing less than generating a new global culture of empathy by creating adventure spaces where you can explore how to view life from the perspective of other people.

A typical Empathy Museum would not house dusty exhibits inside glass cases. Instead, it would be an exciting and intriguing playground rivalling the finest galleries and tourist attractions that the city has to offer. On rainy Sunday afternoons you might wander through the Empathy Museum with a few friends or your mother-in-law. During the week it is likely to be filled with children on school excursions and inquisitive visitors from countries where the ideal of empathy remains embryonic. The Empathy Museum will ignite the imagination just like the first public museums in the seventeenth century, whose collections of curiosities revealed the wonders of nature and human civilization for the first time.

What actually happens in an Empathy Museum? What do you see or do when you get there? Here is what you might find inside.

Cut-Make-Trim:In this room there are twenty sewing machines and a team of former sweatshop factory workers from Viet Nam who will teach you how to make a shirt under the working conditions of your favourite fashion label. At the end you will be paid the average amount that a textile industry employee in a developing country receives per shirt. Unfortunately it will not be nearly enough for a cup of tea in the café, and might leave you wondering about whether you should really buy cheap clothes from discount stores that have been produced by low-wage labour.

All The World’s A Stage:Professional actors will guide you in dramatic role plays, improvisations and other acting exercises to help you discover the secrets of stepping into the shoes of another person. Once a month, a well-known expert in method acting, such as Daniel Day Lewis, will run workshops on their art.

Empathic Adventurers:This gallery depicts the life stories of empathists such as Mahatma Gandhi, George Orwell, Harriet Beecher Stowe, St Francis of Assisi and Nelson Mandela. There is also an attached Thought Room, with displays on empathy thinkers like Martin Buber, Jiddhu Krishnamurti, Desmond Tutu and Thich Nhat Hanh, which will reflect the place of empathy in Buddhism and other cultural traditions.

Climate Futures: This is one of the most popular yet frightening spaces in the Empathy Museum. You get to experience what it is like to live through a major flood – the kind of weather event that could be common following the effects of climate change. Together with half a dozen others, you will be placed in a sealed chamber and watch the waters gradually rise around you. There are options of constructing a quick-assembly boat from corrugated iron or clambering into a rubber dinghy which is too small to hold you all. Life jackets must be worn.

Conversation Booths:Throughout the museum there are Conversation Booths where you can talk to other visitors about hope, friendship, love and curiosity. The walls of each booth are covered with questions to stimulate your conversation. On regular theme days they will be occupied by special guests to give you a chance to speak with people who you might not encounter in everyday life, such as mental health workers, off-duty soldiers, Quakers or management consultants. There are facilities for visitors to make an audio recording of their own empathic experiences which will become part of a publicly accessible archive.

The Veil of Ignorance:A roomful of computer consoles invites you to play the empathy simulation game called The Veil of Ignorance. Your task is to decide how to distribute the planet’s wealth and natural resources (for instance making the world highly equal, or skewing the distribution towards some countries and social groups). The catch is that you don’t know where you might personally end up – you could be born a poor Indonesian rice farmer or a business tycoon in Houston. After you have chosen your distribution, the computer randomly allocates you to a particular life in a specific nation, indicating your standard of living. If you end up as a beggar in Calcutta, might you spread the wealth more evenly next time you play, just in case you find yourself at the bottom of the pile?

Dressing Up Box:Here you will find clothes you can dress up in to experience lives you have never tried. There is appropriate attire so you can go and beg for an hour at the entrance to the Empathy Museum, or help sweep and mop the floors and toilets. Another option is to wear a chef’s outfit and work in the café kitchen peeling potatoes and washing up during the lunchtime rush. If you are lucky you may be joined by the museum director who spends an hour each week scouring burned frying pans.

Biophilia Theatre:This is a miniature zoo containing chimpanzees, baby elephants, dolphins, bats, St Bernard dogs and Burmese cats. The idea is that you spend time observing and getting to know these friendly creatures to test the theories of evolutionary biologists who believe that it is possible to empathise with animals. Your empathy levels while watching films of both humans and animals experiencing suffering and pleasure will be recorded with the latest neuro-imaging device.

The Lives of Others Café:When you buy your lunch in the café, the cashier registers it with a special Lives of Others scanner and takes your seat number. Once you sit down, the screen on your table begins playing a video containing an interview with the workers who are responsible for the items you just purchased. If you bought fair-trade coffee, there may be a Mexican coffee picker talking about the new health clinic that has just opened on the cooperative plantation where he is employed. If you chose the standard coffee, it could be a Brazilian worker explaining how her wage is so low that she cannot afford to send her children to primary school.

The Tower of Perspective:As you leave the grounds to return to your normal life, there is a giant glass tower filled with thousands of pairs of shoes. If you have been moved by your day at the Empathy Museum, you are invited to climb the spiral stairway to the top of the tower, remove your footwear and drop it onto the pile, where it will join the cowboy boots, flip-flops, jogging shoes, sensible pumps and ballet slippers of visitors before you. Through this symbolic act you signal to humankind that you are an empathist, dedicated to the art of stepping into the lives of others and seeing the world from their perspective.

The word ‘museum’ comes from the Muses of Greek mythology, whose job was to inject a divine spark into everyday life. My hope is that in the twenty-first century, the source of that spark will be Empathy Museums which will revolutionise the very meaning of public culture and leave their visitors changed forever.

Stop Press! Since writing this article the plans for the Empathy Museum have moved on! Visit the website at www.empathymuseum.com and watch the video Step Into The Empathy Museum.

12 thoughts on “Why every city needs an Empathy Museum

  1. Dear Roman,

    Where is this Empathy museum? If it doesn’t exist yet, I want to help you bring life to your idea and create this museum!

    I just found your blog through a friend. I am a MA student in Design for Development, at Kingston University, and my current research is about empathy. I want to link empathy and social innovation projects, through the lens of the service design.

    I would like to talk with you more about this topic. It’s brilliant!


  2. Hi,

    This is fantastic and so very inspiring. You have got me very excited about a project I am trying to start myself which is involving love, empathy and random acts of kindness. I am very much at the very beginning stage, and as i am still working full time it is slow moving but I am confident that this is the answer and you have just helped me believe even more.

    Thank you very much.

    I would also be very happy to share ideas.

    Much love,


  3. I’ve been so inspired by your talk on outrospection, that I am making the RSA video the central focus of a talk I will be giving at my church in a few weeks. I am love the pro-active concept of an “empathy museum.” At the end of the talk we will try and come up with our own exhibits based on our church principles.
    I’m also a high school english teacher that is just finishing up teaching “1984” in the classroom and I am trying to work out how to use your video under the guise of taking the text (or any text for that matter) and using it as a window into empathy. The fact that Orwell figures in as a central topic to both is just icing on the cake.
    Thank you again, and so much

  4. I’m a big fan of empathy – and the role of culture in immersing us in other worlds, to feel as others feel, to flip the switch in us to think ‘bigger than self’. I’m not such a big fan of building new museums. Smaller local museums are being shut down or threatened wherever there are austerity policies, while big brand museums manage to get enough sponsorship (often disregarding the ethics of the source) to expand and build new ones. Is it possible for an Empathy Museum to take the form of touring installations in existing museums (and other cultural centres), helping them to attract more visitors, and also inspiring them to develop more participatory and contemporary forms of engagement? I’d be happy to help with the vision!

  5. Thanks, Roman. Just found it and joined and will now happily browse instead of doing what I am meant to be doing this morning.

Leave a Reply