Virtual Issues

The Human Condition: Health, Wellness, & Emotional Connection in Museums

Abigail Diaz & Sunewan Paneto

Abigail Diaz is the Director of Education & Programs at the Wisconsin Maritime Museum. She is also a certified ADA Coordinator with a passion for making museums places for all people. Abigail is a member of the 2020 Knology — Curator: The Museum Journal Writing Scholars Workshop.

Sunewan Paneto is a senior research and evaluation assistant at the Museum of Science, Boston. Her work focuses on how emotions can impact visitors’ museum experiences. Sunewan is a member of the 2020 Knology — Curator: The Museum Journal Writing Scholars Workshop.


Health and wellness are an integral part of the human condition. The articles curated for this Virtual Issue center around how museums have addressed illness, disability, death and overall health through their programs, exhibits, and collections — with a particular lens on how museum staff and visitors have responded emotionally to these experiences. Highlighted articles discuss museums and their role in creating emotional connections such as empathy and compassion around these topics. As Myers Jr. and colleagues write in their 2004 article about the emotional experience of watching animals at a zoo, “Emotion is multidimensional: it focuses on a person’s core goals; directs attention and interest; arouses the body for action; and integrates social group and cultural factors. It is thus a central component of meaning‐making” (p. 299). The authors of this Virtual Issue advocate for the power that emotional connections can provide — particularly as they relate to health.

With the current COVID-19 pandemic ever present in our minds and actions as we write these words in April 2020, the articles presented here stress the importance of emotional connections more than ever for the entire museum field including both staff and visitors. Empathy-building and emotionally intelligent work can deepen interactions within the museum. Learning experiences are enhanced and resonate long after a visit is over. Most importantly, stirring the emotions of museum stakeholders has a greater potential to impact action outside of the museum walls.

Although there are a variety of medical and health-focused museums, exhibitions, and emotion-related programs and projects, the focus of this article is to explore how these concepts work with one another. As such, the authors acknowledge that this is by no means a complete holistic look at all of the work within the field and is primarily from Curator’s archives alone. This selection of articles  demonstrates the importance of wellness-related topics for a variety of museums — including science museums, art museums, and natural history museums — over the last six decades.

In 1959, just a year after the journal was founded, “Can the Health Museum Flourish in America” by Winfield G. Doyle was published. The article asks readers to consider the importance of biological and health-specific museums as “an instrument for the self-education of the public.” To the author’s credit, Doyle discusses a variety of topics to be presented upon within a health museum including mental health, aging, community health and addiction. Even with a very medicine-focused sentiment throughout the article, Doyle does consider the impact of these exhibits on visitors after they leave the museum. They write, “One contribution a health museum can make in helping people of all ages adjust to their social setting is a sympathetic treatment of the processes of growth and maturing” (p. 81). He goes on to say that many generations might come to such a museum for information, and also for consolation and understanding.

Institutional Empathy, Social Justice, & Stigma

In the five decades since the publication of “Can the Health Museum Flourish in America,” museums have more fully accepted the role they can play in impacting visitor emotions. The 2019 article titled The Empathetic Museum, while not directly related to health topics, serves as a foundation for the articles presented in this issue (Jennings et al.). According to this article, an Empathetic Museum is “impossible without an inner core of institutional empathy: the intention of the museum to be, and be perceived as deeply connected within its community” (p. 505). The article also states that museums cannot survive in the 21st century while remaining separate from issues of social justice, such as inclusion and access. In Siegel’s 2013 article, “Human +, an Exhibition Reflecting the Voices and Lives of People with Disabilities,” John Hockenberry is quoted as saying, “Some 150 million of us are over the age of 80, while 200 million of us suffer from severe cognitive, emotional, sensory, or physical disabilities” (p. 377). Inevitably, all of us will be impacted by health or wellness concerns and will require some type of accomodation to go about our everyday lives in a world that has been built for the healthy and able-bodied. Health is a social justice issue because it affects everyone and museums have the ability to facilitate and connect groups of people, particularly those who may be marginalized, removed from equitable access to healthcare, or are isolated for health reasons, in a safe and meaningful way.

The normalization of these issues within the museum field can also be seen in the Human+ exhibition, according to Siegel’s article. Exhibit developers at the New York Hall of Science thoughtfully involved people with disabilities during the planning process and also emphasized their lived experiences throughout the exhibit. This exhibit was not about technology, but rather human abilities and activities For this reason, the exhibition purposely avoided heroic and pity story narratives as a means to achieve this goal. The authentic and inclusive way in which the museum went about creating this exhibit also impacted staff. The author notes, “My colleagues and I have been filled with emotion and have gained a deeper understanding of how different abilities can affect people’s lives” (p. 383). When museum professionals more deeply engage with topics of health and wellness and build connections with people that have a lived experience that is different than their own, they are impacted emotionally.

Some museum exhibits take on a health-related topic in order to educate and also reduce stigmas. In 1990, the National AIDS Exhibit Consortium was formed to bring together science museums that saw the importance of tackling the AIDS epidemic within their galleries. The formation and purpose of this Consortium is discussed by Aprison in their 1993 article. Institutions across the United States, like the Museum of Science and Industry (Chicago), Museum of Science (Boston) Exploratorium (San Francisco), and the Franklin Institute Science Museum (Philadelphia), joined the effort alongside the American Medical Association and the public health agency now called the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The Consortium was founded on the premise that “learning about AIDS in a nonthreatening setting may enable museum visitors to adopt behaviors that reduce the risks of transmission of HIV and may foster compassionate, humane attitudes toward persons affected by the disease” (p. 88). Some examples of these efforts to support emotional and human connections included incorporating real people to voice the exhibit narrative, inviting teens characterized as “high-risk” by the authors to help develop programs, and creating a separate area to present potentially sensitive topics to visitors.

Using Health to Connect Staff & Visitors

Empathy-building can occur outside of exhibit spaces and for more than just visitors. Two articles in Curator’s archive, “Curating Care: The Design and Feasibility of a Partnership Between an Art Museum and an Academic Pain Center” (Koebner et al., 2018) and “Museums, Meaning Making, and Memories: The Need for Museum Programs for People with Dementia and Their Caregivers” (Rhoads, 2009) present successful examples that address the impact of health and wellness-related museum programs on staff and program partners. In “Curating Care,” members of the Crocker Art Museum partnered with Art Rx, an academic pain center, in order to create curated tours designed to engage those who lived with chronic pain. Museum staff were able to connect with their own healthcare experiences, including some who stated that they had a deeper empathy for people in their lives with similar illnesses. As one museum staff member stated, “I have family members who are dealing with pain, so I think I have come to value just how important it is for people to have even just a minor opportunity to be distracted from what becomes an all-encompassing, all day long experience” (p. 423). Like Human+, visitors who were part of the program appreciated its ability to normalize visitors’ different needs through its accommodations (e.g., providing movable stools) and also offering an opportunity to socialize, which may not occur as often as a result of chronic pain. As one participant said about the program, “it was just so nice for me to get out and forget about my pain and be a normal person” (p. 423).

Some museums foster empathy and connection through targeted programs for a specific group of people that have been similarly impacted by health. In their 2009 article, Rhoads highlighted programs for people with memory loss. Museums can be conduits for connection and interaction, places that can elicit emotional and personal responses from people with dementia and also their caregivers and museum staff. The article notes that leading these social arts programs encourages staff to work with different audiences and also challenges staff to consider other perspectives when planning programs. Rhoads also outlines the importance of social inclusion and emotional connections rather than solely focusing on learning content; the objectives for these programs are emotional and health-related in nature.

Building Health Connections without Humans

Empathy building can occur outside of programs and exhibits directly addressing human health. The article “Death on Display: Reflections on Taxidermy and Children’s Understanding of Life and Death” explores the potential for animal taxidermy in initiating conversations between adults and children about death in the safe environment. Indeed, the most prominent articles that appear related to building empathy and compassion are related to zoo animals (Young et al., 2018; Fraser, 2009). While there are many articles covering health and wellness, some dating back to the 1950s, many articles we explored failed to address the emotional aspects of health or addressed them only briefly with their main focus being content learning (e.g., Cartmill & Day, 1997; Diamond et al., 2015). For this reason, one question the authors of this Virtual Issue wish for readers to consider is why museums have found it easier to consider building these skills with non-human animals, but harder to do with people?

This point is echoed in Dorfman’s 2018 article, “Elephants and Ivory: Coordinating Natural History Museum Action to Address Wildlife Crime.” This piece makes a compelling case for empathy-building as a meaningful way to spur visitors into action. The author notes that effective programming is both relevant and personal to participants. A lengthy paragraph describing in detail the death of a mortally wounded elephant follows where the disconsolate herd surrounds the animal, trying to wake it and eventually covering it in brush and dirt. The article says the passage is moving because we, as the readers, can identify with the emotions surrounding death like grief and loss. But the author notes a distinct difference: “The empathy one might feel when reading this evocative passage is in stark contrast with the notion of the ‘other’…to some representations of humans” (p. 141). The article goes on to stress that empathy-building is not enough to make meaningful change as there must be action. “The dichotomy between humanity’s love for, and dependence on, nature on one hand and willingness to disregard it completely on the other, is at the crux of the problem…”, remarks Dorfman (p. 141).


Museums have the power to foster empathy in order to combat otherness especially in regards to universal topics like health, wellness, and death. We hope the groundwork laid out in Jennings and colleagues’ “Empathetic Museum” continues to be used as a toolkit to aid museums in supporting their communities, especially in matters of equity and inclusion. Ultimately, health and wellness is a social justice issue that will affect us all at some point in our lives. An inclusive and relevant museum will be a place where learning happens, and also where connections are built, emotions are stirred, and action is spurred.


Aprison, B. (1993). The National AIDS Exhibit Consortium. Curator: The Museum Journal, 36(2), 88-93.

Cartmill, R. S., & Day, L. L. (1997). Prevention of substance abuse: Can museums make a difference?. Curator: The Museum Journal, 40(3), 197-210.

Dorfman, E. J. (2018). Elephants and ivory: coordinating natural history museum action to address wildlife crime. Curator: The Museum Journal, 61(1), 133-145.

Doyle, W. G. (1959). Can the Health Museum Flourish in America?. Curator: The Museum Journal, 2(1), 74-83.

Diamond, J., Jee, B., Matuk, C., McQuillan, J., Spiegel, A. N., & Uttal, D. (2015). Museum monsters and victorious viruses: improving public understanding of emerging biomedical research. Curator: The Museum Journal, 58(3), 299-311.

Fraser, J. (2009). The anticipated utility of zoos for developing moral concern in children. Curator: The Museum Journal, 52(4), 349-361.

Jennings, G., Cullen, J., Bryant, J., Bryant‐Greenwell, K., Mann, S., Hove, C., & Zepeda, N. (2019). The Empathetic Museum: A New Institutional Identity. Curator: The Museum Journal, 62(4), 505-526.

Koebner, I. J., Fishman, S. M., Paterniti, D., Sommer, D., Ward, D., & Joseph, J. G. (2018). Curating Care: The Design and Feasibility of a Partnership Between an Art Museum and an Academic Pain Center. Curator: The Museum Journal, 61(3), 415-429.

Myers Jr, O. E., Saunders, C. D., & Birjulin, A. A. (2004). Emotional dimensions of watching zoo animals: An experience sampling study building on insights from psychology. Curator: The Museum Journal, 47(3), 299-321.

Rhoads, L. (2009). Museums, meaning making, and memories: The need for museum programs for people with dementia and their caregivers. Curator: The Museum Journal, 52(3), 229-240.

Sanders, D., & Hohenstein, J. (2015). “Death on Display:” Reflections on Taxidermy and Children’s Understanding of Life and Death. Curator: The Museum Journal, 58(3), 251–262.

Siegel, E. (2013). Human+, an Exhibition Reflecting the Voices and Lives of People with Disabilities. Curator: The Museum Journal, 56(3), 375-384.

Smiraglia, C. (2016). Targeted museum programs for older adults: a research and program review. Curator: The Museum Journal, 59(1), 39-54.

Young, A., Khalil, K. A., & Wharton, J. (2018). Empathy for animals: A review of the existing literature. Curator: The Museum Journal, 61(2), 327-343.

Zakaria, N. N. (2020). Barriers to Social Inclusion with the Egyptian Museums; New Approach Towards Disability. Curator: The Museum Journal.

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