Engaging with Empathy: Staff Support for Emotionally-Charged Exhibitions
LACEY LIEBERTHAL, MBA, MA
Theory and Practice, Vol. 1, 2018
Abstract Is your staff prepared to engage with an upset visitor? When a museum displays emotionally-charged material, this scenario becomes more likely. This article emerged following a story about a frontline staff person who sat with a crying visitor for forty-five minutes in the middle of a museum gallery. This visitor had become emotional because he had experienced the difficult history presented in the exhibition. This particular staff person, however, was unsure what was appropriate to do in this situation given her role at the museum. She craved more guidance, more education, and more support from the museum to prepare for these situations. This article analyzes education and support for staff and volunteers working in emotionally-charged environments. Primary research consisted of six case studies and one cross-institutional group interview with individuals in frontline positions at relevant museums and non-museum organizations. Secondary research consisted of a literature review in museum and business practices focusing on empathy and emotional intelligence in museums. Recommendations include a proposal for an accessible and succinct education and support guide with a foundation in emotional intelligence.
Keywords Staff training; Staff support; Empathy; Emotional intelligence; Museums
About the Author Lacey Lieberthal completed a dual MBA/MA degree in Museum Studies at the John F. Kenney University, and bachelor’s degree in Art History and Arts Management at the University of San Francisco. Lacey is currently the Assistant Director of The Society of California Pioneers, and an active member of San Francisco History Days 2018 and the California Association of Museums. Her research interests include ways in which our past informs our present and future and how museums can foster dialogue inspiring individuals to explore what that means to them. Lacey can be reached at: email@example.com.
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel. – Maya Angelou
This paper explores how museums educate and support staff in preparation for emotionally-charged exhibitions and provides recommendations for the comprehensive education and emotional support of museum staff. A movement exists in museums to explore deeply personal human issues of the past and present. The case studies below feature museums and non-museum social service agencies; each of the organizations explores an issue that often triggers intense emotions in both visitors and staff members working in the exhibition space. For this reason, museums creating emotionally challenging exhibitions should prepare staff members in unique ways both to support the museum’s internal organizational culture and the external needs of patrons.
Scholars and journalists are writing about the increasing and varying roles of emotion in museums. For example, The Empathetic Museum is a digital, collective effort to research and provide resources to museums seeking to become more empathetic (Margaret Kadoyama, personal communication, November 16, 2016). Similarly, Lois Silverman (2002) writes about museums in relation to the mental health and social work fields, arguing that museums have therapeutic potential if they borrow from known practices of healing. Nina Simon (2016) unites many of these theories in her book, The Art of Relevance. Simon (2016), Executive Director of the Santa Cruz Museum of Art and History, argues that becoming relevant is the only way for a museum to meet the needs of a diverse community. For a museum, relevance means to truly reach an audience, and this can only be achieved by practicing empathy to find what is in people’s hearts (Simon, 2016).
Empathy and trust among staff create adaptive, productive, and harmonious organizational cultures (Dr. Olivia Herriford, personal communication, September 1, 2016; Lencioni, 2012). Knowledge of Daniel Goleman’s (1995) model of emotional intelligence (EI) is critical in understanding the role of emotion and empathy in the workplace. Goleman’s (1995) EI framework includes the competencies of self-awareness, self-management, social awareness, and relationship management. Using the EI framework as a foundation for staff education programs infuses empathy throughout the organization.
The recent trend to promote the power of museums to foster understanding within our communities requires a commitment to the visitor and to creating a meaningful experience within the museum (Dr. Olivia Herriford, personal communication, November 16, 2016). However, it may be detrimental to both the organizational health and the visitor or client experience if staff are not adequately trained to approach visitor emotions in an empathetic manner.
Case Studies, Set 1: Social Service Agencies
American Red Cross (Washington, D.C.)
This case study focused on the role of disaster mental health volunteers, who are deployed in response to a disaster specifically to provide emotional support for disaster response volunteers, victims, and other relief staff (American Red Cross, 2013, para. 2). It consisted of an organizational analysis of the American Red Cross and an interview with social worker and disaster mental health volunteer, Max Rorty. This research emphasized the importance of validating one’s emotional response without interfering with the experience.
The American Red Cross was founded in 1881 in Washington, D.C. to provide disaster relief and education across the nation (American Red Cross, “History,” para. 2). Every volunteer of the American Red Cross is required to take an introductory course in psychological first aid, titled “Caring for Survivors of Trauma and Disaster” (Max Rorty, personal communication, March 4, 2017). For research purposes, Rorty provided the slides that accompany the course, designed by Chaplain William F. Engfehr III in 2014. Engfehr (2014) begins the course by defining psychological first aid as: “The practice of recognizing and responding to people who need help because they are experiencing stress reactions, resulting from disaster situations” (slide 4). Engfehr (2014) describes the experience and causes of stress so that trainees are better able to understand the victims with whom they will be working (slides 5-8). These explanations also allow trainees to understand how they might be personally affected when responding to a disaster (Engfehr, 2014, slide 31).
The disaster mental health volunteers are given additional training and resources to further support the disaster volunteers and victims (Rorty, 2017). Disaster mental health volunteers must be licensed mental health providers in the state in which they are living (Rorty, 2017). Furthermore, the American Red Cross provides a course in the fundamentals of disaster mental health, which is required to become a disaster mental health volunteer (Rorty, 2017).
Rorty provided many useful tips for engaging with emotional individuals, based on the disaster mental health model. Her primary recommendation was to consistently affirm and validate the person’s emotions (Rorty, 2017). Additionally, one should avoid investigating or intervening with the emotional experience (Rorty, 2017). Many of the comments that feel natural in emotional situations are, in fact, ways of intervening with the experience. For example, telling people that “it will be okay” is not an appropriate response, because one can never be sure that it will be (Rorty, 2017).
During the interview, Rorty drew connections between social work and museums. Reminiscent of Lois Silverman’s writings (2002; 2009), Rorty applied her social work training and practice to situations that are likely to occur in museums. Rorty posited that museum visitors voluntarily enter an emotionally-charged exhibition within a museum hoping for a meaningful and personally emotional experience. Thus, the practice of allowing that experience to take place is even more important. Similar to what the American Red Cross asks of relief volunteers (i.e., to avoid direct intervention with a victim’s emotional response), museum workers may benefit from avoiding intervention with a visitor’s experience in an emotionally-charged exhibition. It will be most meaningful when museum staff takes a hands-off approach to engaging with emotional visitors and provides the appropriate response when interaction becomes necessary.
The Shanti Project (San Francisco, CA)
The Shanti Project (Shanti), founded in San Francisco in 1974, leads a movement to enhance the quality of life for persons living with terminal illnesses through “volunteer-based emotional and practical support” (Shanti, “The Shanti Model,” para. 1). Shanti’s activities include three primary programs: HIV Services, the Women’s Cancer program, and Pets Are Wonderful Support, which provides support to clients by helping to care for their pets. This case study consisted of an interview with Mark Molnar, Program Director of Volunteer Services and for the HIV Community Planning Council, an analysis of training documents provided for research by Molnar, and general research about the organization. Shanti revealed the significance of active listening and simulation practice to prepare individuals before engaging with emotional clients.
Shanti has a well-established model for training in preparation to engage with clients, which is designed specifically for peer support volunteers, although staff also participate in it (Mark Molnar, personal communication, March 1, 2017). Over the course of a few days, participants are led through a series of educational modules that cover specific topics relevant to the volunteer work that they will be doing (Molnar, 2017). Examples of the topics covered include: psychosocial issues faced by clients, techniques in peer counseling, skills in building quality relationships, cultural awareness, and the experience of loss (Molnar, 2017). Trainees also participate in three listening skills practice sessions, in which they simulate active listening in pairs in front of small groups and a staff facilitator (Molnar, 2017). The goal in active listening, which forms the foundation of Shanti’s client approach, is to listen without judgment and to create a safe space to share emotions (Molnar, 2017).
Shanti provides ongoing emotional support to trainees throughout the training weekend (Molnar, 2017). For example, after each listening skills simulation, the group checks in with both the speaker and the listener to discuss how it felt and to ensure both parties feel supported (Molnar, 2017). Additionally, a small group discussion is held after the educational module that focuses on loss, because it is the most emotional module in the program (Molnar, 2017). Often, volunteers feel emotions surrounding their own experiences with loss during this module, and the group discussion following it provides a safe space for them to express their feelings (Molnar, 2017).
The philosophy of Shanti highlights the value of teamwork, mutual empowerment, and active listening. Although Shanti focuses on the uniquely emotional experience of a terminal illness, other organizations that elicit emotions can learn from its theory and practice. In particular, museums with a desire to intentionally prepare staff and volunteers for emotional experience may borrow from Shanti’s comprehensive volunteer training model. Opportunities for simulation practice, open group discussion, and emphasis on listening skills are highly effective in supporting individuals on an emotional level.
Case Studies, Set 2: Museums
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (Washington, D.C.)
The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum (USHMM) in Washington, D.C. seeks to raise awareness about the events of the Holocaust with the purpose of preventing future genocide. With a mission to “[inspire] citizens and leaders worldwide to confront hatred, prevent genocide, and promote human dignity” (USHMM, “About the Museum”), the museum purposefully elicits emotions from visitors as a means to empower them. For this reason, the museum intensely prepares, intentionally supports, and provides security for its staff and volunteers. This case study consisted of a day at the museum conducting research, exploring the permanent exhibition, and speaking with key staff and volunteers, including Director of Museum Services, Dana Carroll. USHMM emphasized the intention to prepare staff and volunteers for the likelihood of having personal emotional experiences while working within the museum.
The museum services department oversees visitor engagement. Of the 428 total volunteers at USHMM, 168 are museum services volunteers who regularly engage with the visitors through ticketing and responding to visitor questions and concerns (Dana Carroll, personal communication, March 8, 2017). In general, each volunteer receives a minimum of 24 hours of training over the course of three days (Carroll, 2017). The training program includes an intensive tour through the exhibitions and training in emergency procedures (Carroll, 2017). The volunteers receive a book entitled, The World Must Know: The History of the Holocaust as told in the United States Holocaust Memorial Museumby Michael Berenbaum, to provide context (Carroll, 2017). Following the training, the volunteers take time to reflect on the training experience and prepare to begin working in the museum (Carroll, 2017). Particular attention is taken with museum services volunteers, who are the primary points of contact for museum visitors. Once a quarter, the museum offers counseling sessions through an outside professional psychological firm (Carroll, 2017). Additionally, the museum staff establishes an open and trusting environment in which most volunteers feel comfortable to share their thoughts and emotions (Carroll, 2017).
As a “living memorial to the Holocaust,” (USHMM, “About the Museum”), the building holds its own emotionally-charged resonance. The frontline volunteers, staff, and docents are charged with holding that for visitors and inspiring them to engage with the content and carry out the museum’s mission of inspiring action to prevent genocide. Although USHMM often elicits emotions of deep sadness and anger towards what happened to those that perished in the Holocaust, there have been anti-Semitic incidents at the museum that have called for high security and tactics in respectful confrontation. Carroll encourages his staff and volunteers to remain respectful of visitors at all times, even when one becomes confrontational, and to call for security back-up in a calm manner (2017). This requires unique training and acknowledgement of the fact that volunteers and staff working in this space will encounter personal emotions, as well as those of the visitors.
Lower East Side Tenement Museum (New York City, NY)
Lower East Side Tenement Museum (the Tenement Museum) is a leader in presenting multiple perspectives, and it provides extensive, ongoing training for its frontline staff members to facilitate open dialogue within the museum (Miriam Bader, personal communication, March 10, 2017). Founded in 1988, the Tenement Museum celebrates immigration by telling the stories of those who lived in the building at 97 Orchard Street, an historic tenement building in the Lower East Side of Manhattan (Lower East Side Tenement Museum, “Our Story,” para. 3-11). As an entirely tour-based museum, the frontline staff are tour guides, titled Educators, who are consistently and purposefully engaging with visitors (Bader, 2017). This case study consisted of a tour and group discussion at the museum, an interview with Miriam Bader, former Director of Education, an interview with Joanna Ross-Tash, the Educator that led my tour, and a review of educator training materials provided by Bader for research. The Tenement Museum showcases the value of flexibility and responsiveness to the needs of both museum visitors and staff.
The Tenement Museum highly values training and support for its educators. Even as part-time employees who work two to three days per week, 25% of an educator’s time is devoted to training (Bader, 2017). Bader elaborated, “So, that gives you a sense of how important and valued training is here, and [how we are invested] in it from a financial point of view and time perspective” (2017). The training is divided between content, for which the museum brings in scholars to present on a variety of relevant topics, and delivery (Bader, 2017). The delivery training prepares educators to take the content and transform it into their tours (Bader, 2017). Much of the delivery skills developed during training are reflected in the museum’s facilitated storytelling model for tours. Working within this model, educators are expected to prepare their tours and respond to visitors’ interests and needs. This way, each tour would be different depending on the group.
On a tour and group discussion led by Ross-Tash, she explained that the goal at the Tenement Museum is to understand multiple perspectives, as opposed to changing people’s minds (personal communication, March 10, 2017). Thus, when a tour participant makes a challenging comment, she sees it as her responsibility to ask, “What is it in your experience that makes you think that?” (Joanna Ross-Tash, personal communication, March 10, 2017). When an educator avoids reacting rashly or attempting to change a visitor’s mind, the dialogue that results will allow participants to embrace multiple perspectives represented in the group and gain a deeper understanding of the human experience as it relates to the museum.
The support and education systems in place at the Tenement Museum are consistently evolving and responding to the needs of its staff (Bader, 2017). For example, in 2016, the museum established monthly meetings in small groups of six, including one full-time manager, to discuss specific educator experiences and delivery tools (Bader, 2017). These meetings are less structured than training sessions, providing educators the opportunity to share common issues and brainstorm openly together. This development came in response to educator feedback about their needs. Responsiveness is a tenet of the museum’s internal culture, which is mirrored in its approach to visitors.
Oakland Museum of California (Oakland, CA)
The Oakland Museum of California (OMCA) combines art, history, and natural sciences to tell the story of California, and, more specifically, the stories of the people of Oakland. The museum’s mission is “to inspire all Californians to create a more vibrant future for themselves and their communities” (OMCA, “Mission & History,” para. 1). The museum works consistently with its community to stand as a platform for dialogue and to cultivate a sense of belonging (Fogarty, 2017). This work includes an investment in staff as members of the museum’s most immediate community (Kelly McKinley, personal communication, March 15, 2017). OMCA provides opportunities to build skills in engaging with individuals who may have differing opinions (McKinley, 2017). Kelly McKinley, Deputy Director of OMCA, describes this as “building [the staff] tool belt” (2017). This case study focused on OMCA’s recent exhibition, All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50(October 8, 2016 – February 25, 2017). McKinley indicated that this exhibition was one of the museum’s first opportunities to draw on multiple tools from the tool belt to engage in emotionally-charged conversations with the community (2017). This case study consisted of a visit to the exhibition and interviews with key staff members, including McKinley and Emily Quist, former Associate Director of Visitor Strategy. OMCA exemplified the significance of continued improvement at all staff levels and the acknowledgment of certain environments that may be particularly emotionally-charged.
All Power to the People was intended to inspire an emotional reaction within visitors (McKinley, 2017). Thus, it required special education and support of its frontline staff members. OMCA has two primary frontline positions, gallery guides and visitor experience associates, which comprise the visitor experience staff. Gallery guides support visitors within the gallery, while visitor experience associates provide guidance and ticketing services. During an interview, Quist elaborated on the preparation of frontline staff who would be engaging with visitors within All Power to the People. She explained to me that a special temporary exhibition generally calls for approximately five hours of supplemental training for her visitor experience staff, but for All Power to the People, there were 20 hours of additional training due to the exhibition’s sensitive themes (Quist, 2017). The additional training included watching documentaries about the Black Panther Party, working with handouts on building relevant skills, such as discussing race, and brainstorming potential visitor scenarios in group discussion (Quist, 2017). Additionally, the curators conducted a tour of the exhibition for all staff before opening so that everyone felt well-versed in the content and experience (Quist, 2017).
All OMCA employees are held responsible for a meaningful visitor experience, as it is proud to be a visitor-centered museum. When the time came to plan for a particularly emotionally-charged exhibition such as All Power to the People, the museum was prepared to expand upon staff and volunteer education at all levels. This included open conversations regarding the emotions one may encounter when visiting the exhibition and the type of dialogue that may arise. While resources are often scarce in non-profit organizations such as museums, it is increasingly important to prioritize staff and volunteer support when engaging with charged topics. An emotional experience will be significantly more meaningful when staff and visitors alike feel safe and prepared.
Presidio Trust (San Francisco, CA)
The case study with the Presidio Trust focused on two special exhibitions with emotionally-charged content, Operation Babylift: Perspectives and Legacies(April 16, 2015 – April 3, 2016), co-curated with the Adoption Museum Project, and Exclusion: The Presidio’s Role in World War II Japanese American Incarceration(April 1, 2017 through Spring 2019). Both exhibitions discuss events in local history that still effect individuals living today. This case study consisted of interviews with the curators, Laura Callen of the Adoption Museum Project and Liz Noelani Melicker of the Presidio Trust, Dr. Barbara Berglund Sokolov, the Historian for the Presidio Trust, and an observation of a docent education session for Exclusion. The Presidio Trust emphasized the importance of being thoughtful in one’s use of language when opening dialogue about sensitive topics and engaging with visitors only when appropriate.
The Presidio of San Francisco (the Presidio), a former military base, has a museum space within the historic Officers’ Club called the Heritage Gallery (Liz Noelani Melicker, personal communication, March 15, 2017). The gallery space holds a permanent exhibition that outlines a comprehensive history of the Presidio and a smaller rotating exhibition space, which is managed by the Presidio Trust. Special temporary exhibitions provide an opportunity for the organization to “dig deep into specific aspects of [the Presidio’s] heritage and tie past to present” (Melicker, 2017).
Both the docent education programs for Exclusion and Operation Babyliftfocused heavily on the use of language. In collaboration with the Adoption Museum Project for Operation Babylift, the Presidio Trust was provided the first opportunity to design and implement a docent education program that would prepare them for a unique emotional experience within an exhibition. The program design was based on a model previously developed by Dr. Sokolov for the permanent exhibition in the Heritage Gallery (personal communication, April 14, 2017; Melicker, 2017). The docent education program for Exclusionfollowed the same model.
The model was based on open dialogue between all participants. This provides an opportunity for docents to practice speaking about the subject in a safe space. Additionally, Presidio Trust staff are able to assess the docents’ competency and any preconceived misperceptions they may have about the topic (Sokolov, 2017). Furthermore, dialogue-based education builds community among participants, learning about and from each other in an intimate setting (Sokolov, 2017).
In both exhibitions, docents were expected to be facilitators to support visitors having an independent and meaningful experience (Presidio Trust & Adoption Museum Project, “Docent Approach,” para. 1). Docents were offered suggested strategies to implement this expected approach effectively. For example, a docent could welcome a visitor to the gallery and let her know that she is there to answer questions but was then expected to allow the visitor to be alone in the special exhibition space (Presidio Trust & Adoption Museum Project, “Docent Approach,” para. 2). Callen, Founder & Director of the Adoption Museum Project and co-curator of Operation Babylift, emphasized the importance of avoiding one’s “natural inclination to start engaging when that might not be appropriate” (personal communication, March 13, 2017). The Presidio Trust also emphasized the significance of avoiding assumptions about a visitor’s emotions or perspectives regarding the exhibition (Melicker, 2017). These practices of being sensitive with one’s language and avoiding assumptions are essential to meaningful engagement in charged situations.
Group interview participants were in frontline positions at museums and non-museum organizations in which they were likely to encounter situations that require responding to emotional clients. The two-hour session included five participants: Bryan Baker, Docent, Presidio Trust; Calvin Prieto, Police Officer; Kara Wilber, Gallery Guide, Oakland Museum of California; Kayla Smyth, Volunteer Services Coordinator and emotional support volunteer, The Shanti Project; and, Ali Cone, HIV Planning Council Manager and emotional support volunteer, The Shanti Project. The goal of the group interview was to gain the perspective of individuals who have undergone training for emotionally-charged situations. The interview demonstrated that individuals in frontline positions are craving opportunities for simulation practice, focus on mental health and self-care, and a proactive approach to staff education and support. Although many of the featured organizations have these types of programs in place, there is room for improvement.
The session included scenario discussions, during which each participant was asked to reflect on past experiences and share in group discussion. First, they were asked to recall a situation at work that was emotionally-charged, either for the individual or for a client, in which the respondent felt prepared by organizational training or support. Secondly, they were asked to recall a similar situation in which the respondent felt that something was missing from his or her preparation. The session was an open dialogue space, primarily guided by the participants.
Many of the scenarios presented during group discussion revolved around empathizing with clients in emotionally-charged situations. Cone suggested that this is easier to do when one can give from a “full cup” (personal communication, March 20, 2017). In other words, when there is a culture of self-care throughout the organization, individuals will be healthier and better equipped to engage with others in an empathetic manner.
The group spent the final fifteen minutes of the session outlining the ideal components of a training and support program, many of which drew on the fruitful conversations held during the Scenario Discussions. The components of the “wish list” for an education and support program included: content and context education, active listening and empathy skills education, recommendations of useful phrases for specific situations, experiential simulation practice, peer support systems, and mental health outlets.
Cone reminded the group that if one says the “wrong” thing to an emotional client or museum visitor, it is not a failure (2017). We are all human, and we are all continuously learning. For this reason, self-care and outlets for mental health are increasingly important. Suggestions from the group for self-care in the workplace included: break rooms and frequent breaks, stress release activities, freedom to opt out of a situation, and freedom to take leave. Overall, organizational recognition of the potential of burn-out will strengthen the position of individuals engaging with the public (Kayla Smyth, personal communication, March 20, 2017).
Each organization featured in the case studies, many of which were also featured in the group interview, has an effective system for staff support and education in place to prepare for emotionally-charged situations. However, the group interview revealed that individuals on the frontlines are craving more. In a museum, these individuals see the visitor experience first-hand, and thus, they have a deep understanding of how visitors engage with exhibitions. They deserve more opportunities to give feedback on these unique experiences and to be involved in designing programs for their own education and emotional support. Additionally, they deserve for it to be a top priority within the museum.
Conclusions & Recommendations
Three dominant conclusions emerged from this study: first, the importance of listening was a through line across all the sources consulted for this research; second, staff, volunteers, and visitors alike seek safe spaces in which to express their emotions; finally, empathy is required in engaging with emotional individuals.
While the term “empathy” was widely used throughout this research, the term “emotional intelligence” was not. Emotional intelligence, however, encompasses much of the skills required to practice empathy, including thoughtful listening and creating safe and open environments in which individuals feel comfortable enough to express emotions. Naming this work as “emotional intelligence” and building programs based on Goleman’s (1995) EI framework will allow for more comprehensive education and support for staff in emotionally-charged environments.
Other key recommendations include a proactive approach to staff education and support, the establishment of a culture of self-care throughout the organization, and the provision of opportunities to practice listening skills in simulation during training sessions. While programs that include these elements can be scaled depending on organizational resources, a concentrated and consistent effort on the part of organizational leadership is demanded by even the most basic staff support. An intention to value staff and volunteers and to consistently make that intention known will provide a foundation for proactive education and support for individuals in frontline positions, which will ultimately improve their performance in engaging with the public.
The research conducted provided best practices and learning lessons for education and support for emotionally-charged exhibitions. However, there is always room for improvement. We can provide more guidance, education, and support to staff and volunteers. While individuals at all levels of an organization can benefit from emotional support education, those on the frontlines are most vulnerable to emotional reactions from the organization’s patrons. Thus, their feelings will be reflected in their interactions with visitors, and in turn, the overall visitor experience. In order to better support these individuals who are vital to the museum’s success, one must have empathy for their perspectives and experiences. Above all, we must listen to them, and we must never stop caring about them.
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