Empathy and Museum Visitor (Dis)engagement with Mental Illness
Numerous calls have been made by academics and museum practitioners over the last decade for museums to play a stronger role in helping society to discuss difficult issues. Accordingly, a number of recent studies have attempted to make sense of the impact that difficult exhibitions have on visitor attitudes towards a range of contentious topics. However, few studies regarding visitor responses have sought to discuss the issue of mental health and illness. It is a topic, notes Professor Catharine Coleborne, that remains largely “off-limits” within the museum sector due to the way it challenges our sense of self-control and our notions of normality. In this talk, I look at recent findings from my research in London and Melbourne at two exhibitions that seek to challenge stigmatised attitudes towards the topic of mental health and illness. The research provides insight into the reasons behind why visitors attend these sorts of exhibitions. In doing so, I highlight the tendency of many visitors to emotionally disengage from the exhibition messages while simultaneously trying to reaffirm their identity as individuals who hold progressive views on mental health.
Lachlan Dudley - Australian National University