How Meeting the Dalai Lama Changed My Museum Practice

This past October, I had the mind-blowing opportunity to meet the Dalai Lama on his own home turf in Dharamshala, India. It’s taken me fully 3 months to understand how this surreal experience has become a part of me – the regular me that’s not in the presence of a global spiritual leader and 30 of the brightest people I’ve ever met.

I’m in the back row, right side. The Dalai Lama, center, is wearing a baseball cap that says “San Francisco Ballet” given to him by one of the delegates Danielle St. Germain-Gordon. He loves baseball caps! Who knew?!

I’m in the back row, right side. The Dalai Lama, center, is wearing a baseball cap that says “San Francisco Ballet” given to him by one of the delegates Danielle St. Germain-Gordon. He loves baseball caps! Who knew?!

So here I am, back in the rhythm of feeding my cat and working with my museum clients. And this experience is definitely still with me. I’ve got big ideas that I’m eager to keep exploring. I’ve also got a renewed excitement about the potential of museums to make the world a better place. This may sound idealistic, grandiose, and maybe a little “woo-woo.” But after having a BIG experience, you think BIG!

How I Came to Meet the Dalai Lama

Me and Elif Gokcidem (pronounced EE-lif GOCH-kee-dem)

Me and Elif Gokcidem (pronounced EE-lif GOCH-kee-dem)

I met Elif Gokcidem, author of Fostering Empathy Through Museums (2016), at an AAM conference a few years back. We kept in touch, exchanged ideas, and had coffee periodically. Then one day, I got an email:

As Representative of The Office of Tibet, for His Holiness, The 14th Dalai Lama, along with the organizing committee, it is our pleasure to extend an invitation to you, requesting your participation in the Summit:
Fostering Universal Ethics And Compassion Through Museums.

 The objective of the Summit is to harness the collective wisdom of a carefully selected group of multidisciplinary thought leaders and visionaries to explore opportunities for museums to promote a more compassionate world.

Elif had assembled a super squad of empathy evangelists to share a collective journey – up a steep and winding road in the Himalayan Mountains - to the epicenter of kindness and compassion. I felt humbled to be included. Why me? I often discussed empathy and compassion as byproducts of museum experiences, but it wasn’t my central concern. In the end, I accepted the invitation rather than asking too many questions. Because Dalai Lama!

The Summit

For a more in-depth recounting of the 3-day summit, and a complete list of attendees,
I encourage you to read
Seth Frankel’s article in the Informal Learning Review.

On the very first day, with my head still spinning, our group of 30 was taken to the Dalai Lama’s compound. Perched atop a cushy lounge chair on a tiny stage, His Holiness Dalai Lama(HHDL) related to us his life’s learnings and his vision for more compassionate world. It was powerful.

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I mean, here is a guy who has spent his life thinking about the meaning of life, spiritual enlightenment, and all of human history. And he is convinced that museums are key resources for helping people to become better versions of themselves. He didn’t mean that people need more knowledge to better themselves. He meant that people need more help using that knowledge for good.

Of course, I already believed that notion or I wouldn’t be doing this work. But the gravity of the situation made me wonder if we are really taking that goal seriously.

Formal education created a new model in which the heart and mind were separated.  Art by Christian Schloe

Formal education created a new model in which the heart and mind were separated.
Art by Christian Schloe

HHDL explained that when modern educational institutions began in the West, a few centuries back, religion was still a very influential force in society. At that time, there was a purposeful split between spiritual learning and school learning. Under this new model, we learned how to be a good person at home and at church, while learning academic knowledge at school.

 This separation, he says, has become problematic in today’s world. Organized religion, the institution that has previously been charged with giving people codes of ethic to live by,  has been on the decline for decades. Strong, interconnected communities are eroding. Fewer and fewer children are learning to form their own personal values and to understand how to connect those values to decision and action.

Studies show a 48% decline in empathy in past 40 years

My Changing Perspective About the Purpose of Museums

This history lesson on how academic learning has been divorced from ethics continues to be an idea that think about. I didn’t grow up going to church. I was lucky to have a family that talked about emotions, values, and ethics quite a bit. But many families don’t have that foundation.

I didn’t grow up going to church, but my mother made sure that discussing values, ethics, and emotions were a part of growing up. Thanks Mom!

I didn’t grow up going to church, but my mother made sure that discussing values, ethics, and emotions were a part of growing up. Thanks Mom!

Because I didn’t grow up in a religious family, I have always been a champion of the separation between church and state. What this really meant to me as an American was that I didn’t want to be forced to be Christian at school. But what HHDL is advocating is quite different than religion in school. That was an “a-ha” moment for me.

He’s promoting the idea of “secular ethics.” This term, which is a branch of moral philosophy, means that you use rational thinking to determine your own code for moral behavior. Instead of indoctrinating someone to use the ethical code for one particular religion, the study of secular ethics asks you to agree only to the ideas of caring for others and trying to be a good person in a society. Then you engage in critical thinking to figure out what that means for YOU. He called it being “warm-minded.” It made complete sense to me to reunite the heart and mind after the two were artificially separated by formal education.

It’s natural for educators and exhibit developers to want to avoid dictating what is ethically right and wrong. Values can get political - especially these days. Of course we are teaching these lessons, whether we intend to or not - in the stories we feature, in the people we call out as model figures. (Shouts out to the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral movement) But secular ethics doesn’t dictate. It asks. It’s a process by which each person (visitor) is invited to refine their knowledge, thinking skills, and self-awareness, in order to make up their own mind.

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Let’s say there is an exhibition on World War I. Instead of only recounting the battles, outlining the heroes, and explaining the causes, we might ask the question: when is violence against other human beings justified? Why do nations go to war? We might look at things like loyalty, the perils of pride, the pain of feeling wronged and what to do about it. We could bring out the human struggle to defend honor and the consequences of decisions that stem from this struggle. This is secular ethics. This is the warm-minded museum.

World War I Destruction Photo: James Francis Hurley / State Library of New South Wales

World War I Destruction
Photo: James Francis Hurley / State Library of New South Wales

The historical facts are still there, but they’ve been put to work to serve a greater purpose - helping us to understand the ethics of war. To the visitor, we would be asking: where do you stand on aggression and violence? It’s up to you. Use this story about war to help you think deeper and maybe learn something about how you want to live your life.

For many museums, those intangible benefits – becoming a better person, realizing you are part of an interconnected world, learning to live your values – are side effects, but not goals of interpretation. I want to change that. I want to make the interpretive design for secular ethics more intentional.

I’ve always been a proponent of thinking past trivial facts. If you’ve participated in workshops I’ve facilitated, you know I’m a huge fan of using essential questions to frame content. But what’s different for me after going to India is that I have a new name for the soft squishy goals that were always inherent in my work. And when you have a name for something, you make it a focus. I was lumping all of these social-emotional skills into a bucket called “critical thinking” or “21st Century Skills.” No doubt those terms are still an important part of this new focus.

 But I want to think more about the “why.” Why do we need to understand cause-effect relationships? Why do we need to learn abstract thinking or creativity? So that we can move towards making a good, functioning, caring society – a future society that doesn’t need a World War III museum.

This is a classic “Jones” move. Everyone else got a photo shaking hands with the Dalai Lama. I was messing with my Welcome scarf when the shutter clicked.

This is a classic “Jones” move. Everyone else got a photo shaking hands with the Dalai Lama. I was messing with my Welcome scarf when the shutter clicked.

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