Pros: A brilliant (and free) interactive experience in a great location that conveys an important message. Takes however much time you would like to spend.
Cons: The experience can be threatened if you’re wary of the weather and of the prospect of walking in a stranger’s shoes.
Just beside North Greenwich station stand two exhibitions which together form the Empathy Museum, part of this year’s LIFT. Each exhibit, a pop up interactive shoe shop and pop up library, are easily accessible and identifiable, if a little ambiguous to passers by.
The premise of the shoe shop is simple: to literally walk a mile in someone else’s shoes. It’s borne out of a vision to promote understanding of other people’s stories and ways of life. In light of the tragic Orlando massacre – which I arrived home that night to hear about – in addition to the on-going conversation of our own country’s relationship with the rest of the world, such a project seems vitally important and meaningful.
A team of helpful, passionate and utterly inspired volunteers are on hand to talk you through the project and find you a pair of shoes in your size, from a collection of donated shoes from people from all walks of life. Nothing is given away about the identity of the donor by the volunteers – the individual reveals themselves as you begin the mile-long walk, through an audio recording played on an mp3 player.
Now, on this rainy Sunday, I must say that I was not brimming with excitement to walk for a mile in a pair of a stranger’s shoes. I was so cynical, in fact, that I kept my socks on when presented with a pair of sandals. However, within two minutes of walking and listening to the instantly likeable Victoria’s story, I stopped to take my socks off and enter into the experience completely, eager to connect with someone I found myself trusting (as strange as that sounds). Her story was a tragic one, of losing a leg and two family members to a tragic boating accident, yet she never demanded sympathy. Her honesty, pragmatism and strength to, move on with her lost loved ones, and never from them, was admirable and remarkably relatable. There is often a tendency, I find, for us to observe with sadness, as opposed to truly empathising with tragedies. After all, how can we truly empathise, if we cannot fully imagine something? Maybe this is how we manage to continue with our everyday lives as ongoing conflicts and crises slowly fade from the headlines, to be replaced with new unimaginable disasters. This is where the success of A Mile In My Shoes can really be measured. To be able to relate to something so far from our own experiences, and feel an emotional response on any scale, proves a triumph for the exhibition.
I chose to repeat the process with different shoes, and was offered a sewage flusher’s waders. This time, the walk had an entirely different vibe, and it opened my eyes to the city in a way I couldn’t see and had never before imagined.
The second exhibit, A Thousand and One Books, was charming. A visually stunning pop up from the outside, the inside features a wall of books, all covered to conceal their identity, opposite a wall of recommendations. On selecting a recommendation, you can browse or borrow the book, either returning it to the library, or sharing it in another way after you have read it. The collection grows as more people become involved in the project by adding their own donations to the library and the exhibition travels around.
I feel so glad that I took a chance on this experience, and I encourage anyone to visit who can. Whatever the weather, whatever your mood, the Empathy Museum is worth the gamble. As a free exhibition, there really is nothing to lose, but certainly a lot to gain.
Creator: Clare Patey
Open Until: 2 July 2016, no booking required