Toggle Main Menu Toggle Search

Open Access padlockePrints

Experiencing mixed emotions in the museum: empathy, affect, and memory in visitors' responses to histories of migration

Lookup NU author(s): Dr Joanne Sayner, Dr Katherine Lloyd, Professor Areti Galani, Professor Rhiannon MasonORCiD



This is the authors' accepted manuscript of a book chapter that has been published in its final definitive form by Routledge, 2018.

For re-use rights please refer to the publisher's terms and conditions.


Research involving display analysis and interviews with staff and visitors has shown empathy to be an important feature of interpretative strategy in museums addressing migration (Whitehead et. al, 2015). Studies also suggest that this topic is predisposed to encourage emotional and affective responses. (Smith, forthcoming; Schorch 2014, 2015; Witcomb 2013). More specifically, it appears that some audio-visual interpretive strategies may be especially effective at encouraging visitors to engage empathetically with ‘others’. Studies foreground the affective qualities of film, oral histories, talking heads, large-scale photography and art-installation works (Schorch 2015; Witcomb 2013; Bonnell and Simon 2007; Landsberg 2004), although these approaches are not without criticism (Arnold de Simine 2013). Destination Tyneside (Discovery Museum, Newcastle, UK) is an example of a museum display where the curator employed interpretative strategies to explicitly encourage empathetic responses from visitors on the subject of migration to the region. We have been conducting small-scale, in-depth visitor studies to Destination Tyneside with long-term residents and more recent migrants in order to understand how people may, or may not, relate to this new display. Our methods involve working with 15 participants through: 1) a preliminary focus-group discussion; 2) a visit to the gallery wearing glasses with in-built audio-visual capture; 3) a follow-up interview with visitors in pairs to discuss their responses to the gallery; 4) a review of the audio-visual capture with the participants to prompt a self-reflexive account of their visit. The methodology builds on visitor research in this area in several ways (Smith forthcoming, Schorch 2014, 2015, Whitehead et al 2015; Lloyd 2015). We have analysed visitors’ ‘entrance narratives’ (Doering and Pekarik 1996) regarding their sense of place and belonging, and to what extent they consider migration to be relevant to their own lives. We have identified that the audio-visual and interactive interpretive strategies adopted by the gallery are successful in engaging visitors with the intended themes and with personalised accounts of the past. Visitors demonstrate clear engagement with the display’s empathetic strategies, such as perspective-taking, although whether this fundamentally changes their view of migration is much harder to gauge. What emerges clearly from our study is the importance of taking account of other pre-existing, emotionally charged narratives which come to the surface for many long-term local residents when visiting such displays. These emotional narratives clearly frame these visitors’ responses to the gallery. For example, the gallery positively celebrates the booming industries that attracted migrants to the region in the past. However, many local visitors express emotions of disappointment and sadness about the perceived loss of local and national pride due to the post-industrial decline of the heavy manufacturing industries that have marked this area’s recent history. These commonly-expressed emotions are expressed through recurring tropes, turns of phrases, and narrative structures which cumulatively function as memory ‘schemata’ (Wertsch 2012). The ways in which these unanticipated, wider memory schemata interplay with the emotional responses expressively invited by the museum display raises important questions about the complexity of understanding the museum visit in terms of affective practices. It asks us to consider to what extent different kinds of emotions may come into conflict with, frame, or support, one another. It also alerts us to the importance of attending to the interplay between individual, personal emotional responses to specific displays and those which are connected to broader discourses of identity circulating within certain memory communities. Arnold de Simine, S. (2013). Mediating Memory in the Museum: Trauma, Empathy and Nostalgia. Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan.Bonnell, J. and R. Simon. (2007). "'Difficult’ exhibitions and intimate encounters.” museum and society, July. 5(2), 65-85.Doering, Z. D and Pekarik, A. J. (1996). “Questioning the entrance narrative.” Journal of Museum Education. 12 (3), 20-23.Landsberg, A. 2004. Prosthetic Memory: the Transformation of American Remembrance in the Age of Mass Culture. New York: Columbia University Press.Lloyd, K. (2015). “Negotiating Place, Heritage and Diversity: Young People’s Narratives of Belonging and Exclusion in Scotland.” In Whitehead, C; Lloyd, K; Eckersley, S; Mason, R. eds. Museums, Migration and Identity in Europe. Farnham: UK. Ashgate. 149-182.Schorch, P. (2014). “The Cosmohermeunetics of migration encounters at the Immigration Museum Melbourne.” Museum Worlds: Advances in Research, 2 (1), 81-98.Schorch, P. (2015). Experiencing differences and negotiating prejuidices at the Immigration Museum, Melbourne. International Journal of Heritage Studies. 21 (1) 46-64.Smith, L. and G. Campbell. (2015). “The elephant in the room: heritage, affect and emotion”. To be published in: W. Logan, M Nic Craith, U. Kockel (2015) A Companion to Heritage Studies. Wiley-Blackwell. n.p.Smith, L. (forthcoming) “Changing Views? Emotional Intelligence, Registers of Engagement and the Museum Visit”. In V. Gosselin & P. Livingstone, eds. Museums as Sites of Historical Consciousness: Perspectives on museum theory and practice in Canada. Vancouver: UBC Press. n.p.Wertsch, J. (2012). “Deep Memory and Narrative Templates: Conservative forces in Collective Memory.” In A. Assmann and L Shortt. eds. Memory and Political Change. New York: Palgrave Macmillan. 173-185.Whitehead, C; Lloyd, K; Eckersley, S; Mason, R. eds. (2015). Museums, Migration and Identity in Europe. Farnham, UK: Ashgate.Witcomb, A. (2013). “Understanding the role of affect in producing a critical pedagogy for history museums.” Museum Management and Curatorship. Vol. 28 (3), 255-271.

Publication metadata

Author(s): Sayner J, Lloyd K, Galani A, Mason R

Editor(s): Smith LJ; Wetherell M; Campbell G

Publication type: Book Chapter

Publication status: Published

Book Title: Emotion, Affective Practices and the Past in the Present

Year: 2018

Pages: 124-148

Print publication date: 13/06/2018

Online publication date: 20/06/2018

Acceptance date: 13/07/2017

Series Title: Key Issues in Cultural Heritage

Publisher: Routledge

Place Published: Abingdon, Oxon


DOI: 10.4324/9781351250962-8

Notes: Paperback ISBN 9781138579293. Ebook ISBN 9781351250962.

Library holdings: Search Newcastle University Library for this item

ISBN: 9780815370024