Empathy, or the human ability to understand what somebody else is feeling, may not immediately sound like it is the sort of thing that could have an entire museum devoted to it. After all, empathy is often defined in different ways, whether you are talking about the emotional or psychological aspects of it. Nevertheless, a temporary museum has just opened in the United States that is entirely devoted to this human capacity.
In fact, in order to allow visitors to keep an open mind about what empathy really is, the museum’s founders have come up with some very telling architecture. Given that most people will be familiar with empathy being described metaphorically – as the ability to put yourself in the shoes of another – the museum has been designed as a walk-in shoebox. In other words, museum attendees are literally invited to step into the shoes of another human being.
Most recently opened in August, The Empathy Museum’s current exhibition is entitled ‘A Mile in My Shoes’. The pop-up museum concept is likely to only be open for a matter of weeks but it has already achieved a great deal of interest in Denver, Colorado, where it is currently situated. Occupying the site of a shopping mall, the exhibition has a good local footfall among shoppers and passers-by.
Local reports of the museum stated that after months spent in the design and construction phase, those responsible for the installation could not be more pleased with its outcome. Contributions were sought from local people and nearby artists for the experimental empathy exhibition. What some locals have not fully appreciated, however, is that the concept for an empathetically orientated museum actually came from the United Kingdom originally. The concept for the travelling museum was the brainchild of a British artist named Clare Patey. Since it first got going, the Empathy Museum has been on show in numerous forms in the UK, Ireland, Belgium, Australia, Brazil and Siberia before transferring to Colorado by way of New York.
Essentially, the museum can reinvent itself at every city it pops up at. In Denver, the museum was set up with no fewer than thirty pairs of shoes inside it. Alongside these, there were audio recordings made by the people to whom each pair of shoes belonged. This meant that when a visitor turned up to the museum that he or she would be able to listen to what people who live close to them had to say, making the exhibition that bit more relevant. The point about the shoes may be metaphoric and only act as an invitation to be empathetic. Nonetheless, the stories that the contributors recorded go beyond that and, in Denver’s case, local inhabitants the chance to really listen to what their neighbours’ stories were.
One of the contributors who donated his shoes said that when he heard about the idea for the empathy museum, he decided he wanted to try and, “connect the threads of the city.” Brenton Weyi, who is an essayist, philosopher and poet, declared that the concept was really beautiful. “The idea fills me with a great deal of joy and excitement,” he said. “That the public will be able to experience this is amazing.”
Erin Trapp was responsible for bringing the individuals to the empathy museum and persuaded them to give a pair of their shoes for its duration. She said that she wanted a range of different people who had differing life experiences and who were from various backgrounds. In other words, Trapp wanted diverse stories of her city to be told. In one case, there a chef who has donated the shoes he stands in all day long while working. Then, there is a construction site worker who has given up a pair of boots which had been specially adapted for the job. In another case, there is even a single shoe, donated by an amputee.
Explaining her choices, Trapp said that she considered empathy to be very much like a muscle which needs to be worked. “You can build up empathy,” she said, before adding, “You can also teach people empathy.” According to Trapp, by helping people to understand different viewpoints in an empathetic manner, it helps to understand the context of their lives better. You start to see things in a new way and it helps people to move on from their usual thought processes. “[With empathy]… you won’t just have the same knee jerk reaction,” she added.
Of course, listening to the life stories of the individuals concerned is only one aspect of the museum. In ‘A Mile in My Shoes’, visitors are invited to literally put on the footwear of the people who have contributed to it. Of course, there are some practical considerations to take into account, especially when the shoes concerned don’t fit. However, the professionals behind the museum insist that this is a key aspect of the way in which empathy comes across. Even if they cannot wear the shoes of the person they are listening to, their proximity to such personal items helps to engender greater levels of connection.
The Empathy Museum makes a great deal of the local human environment where it is set up. That’s why the Denver exhibition features so many local stories, even if they refer to travels from further afield. A key part of the concept, however, is that the recorded stories are not lost. In fact, you can download and listen to them from past iterations of the show at the museum’s website. Other versions of the Empathy Museum have not focussed on shoes. For example, ‘A Thousand and One Books’ used a similar idea whereby attendees walked into a huge pile of books rather than a shoebox.
Once the exhibition ends in Denver, there are plans to move on to another, as yet, undisclosed location. New stories, new contributors and new shoes will become part of the museum’s visitor experience. That, after all, is in the nature of the pop-up museum concept, one that changes in nature as it changes its location.
Interested in Empathy in Museums? Watch this film from MuseumNext New York.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.