"... led by its director Esme Ward. In her post since 2018, Ward wants to make the free-of-charge institution more inclusive, imaginative and caring. She has repatriated 43 ceremonial and sacred objects to Aboriginal communities in Australia, and appointed a curator to re-examine the collections from an Indigenous perspective.... 'All of us in museums have a responsibility to really think about who they are for, not just what they are for,' Ward said in a recent interview in her office, which has a velvet sofa and a framed poster reading 'No Sexists, No Racists, No Fascists.' Calling museums 'empathy machines,' she said their mission extended beyond caring for objects and collections to 'caring for beliefs and ideas and relationships,' and being 'a space that brings people together.'"
What if there were a machine that could manufacture empathy? It would be a torture device! What did your literal mind — if you have one — picture? I thought first of the machine in Kafka's "Penal Colony,"
then of the device strapped to Malcolm McDowell's head in "A Clockwork Orange."
But, you may say, a museum that's an empathy machine cannot be a torture device because nobody is forced to go to the museum or to stay there, but that's not true. Kids are forced.
Why would someone who loves art — does Ms. Ward love art?! — think of the museum as a machine? To help you think about her thinking, here's art about a machine, Paul Klee's "Twittering Machine":
Originally displayed in Germany, the image was declared "degenerate art" by Adolf Hitler in 1933 and sold by the Nazi Party to an art dealer in 1939, whence it made its way to New York....
The picture depicts a group of birds, largely line drawings; all save the first are shackled on a wire or, according to The Washington Post, a "sine-wave branch" over a blue and purple background which the MoMA equates with the "misty cool blue of night giving way to the pink flow of dawn." Each of the birds is open-beaked, with a jagged or rounded shape emerging from its mouth, widely interpreted as its protruding tongue. The end of the perch dips into a crank....
"Perhaps no other artist of the 20th century matched Klee's subtlety as he deftly created a world of ambiguity and understatement that draws each viewer into finding a unique interpretation of the work."...
Sometimes, the image is perceived as quite dark. MoMA suggests that, while evocative of an "abbreviated pastoral", the painting inspires "an uneasy sensation of looming menace" as the birds themselves "appear closer to deformations of nature".
They speculate that the "twittering machine" may in fact be a music box that produces a "fiendish cacophony" as it "lure[s] victims to the pit over which the machine hovers".
Kay Larson of New York magazine (1987), too, found menace in the image, which she describes as "a fierce parable of the artist's life among the philistines": "Like Charles Chaplin caught in the gears of Modern Times, they [the birds] whir helplessly, their heads flopping in exhaustion and pathos. One bird's tongue flies up out of its beak, an exclamation point punctuating its grim fate—to chirp under compulsion."
Arthur Danto, who does not see the birds as deformed mechanical creatures but instead as separate living elements, speculates in Encounters & Reflections (1997) that "Klee is making some kind of point about the futility of machines, almost humanizing machines into things from which nothing great is to be hoped or feared, and the futility in this case is underscored by the silly project of bringing forth by mechanical means what nature in any case provides in abundance."...
Since a characteristic of chirping birds is that their racket resumes as soon as it seems to be ending, the bird in the center droops with lolling tongue, while another begins to falter in song; both birds will come up again full blast as soon as the machine's crank is turned.