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A Mile in My Shoes by artist Clare Patey

Photo by James Clarke

Clare Patey is an artist, curator and Director of the Empathy Museum. The latest version of their project A Mile in My Shoes brings together 20 new audio stories from refugees and migrants who have made London their home. It opens inside a giant shoebox at The Migration Museum, 8-25 February. Clare writes for Run Riot on the latest incarnation of her work.

In December, an American friend going home for the holidays told me that she expected a strained atmosphere over Christmas. Her brother had voted for Trump. ‘We’ll basically avoid the issue’, she said. There wasn’t a place within her family to have that conversation. But there doesn’t seem to be much of a space to have the public conversation about division either – certainly not without descending into insults and vitriol.

Talking to my friend, I realised that I don’t know anyone who voted for Trump. Or anyone who voted ‘leave’. I’m not sure that this reflects well on me but I am convinced it is extremely common.

“In order to keep up their view of life, people instinctively keep to the circle of those people who share their views of life and their own place in it.” This reads like something that could have been written yesterday, but was Tolstoy, writing in the nineteenth century. He’s right – and since Tolstoy’s time, a number of things have happened which make it even more possible to flock with the birds of a feather.

Public spaces for social interaction are diminishing. Cash-strapped councils are closing social facilities like libraries; our city centres are insidiously privatised; and you can pay to jump queues where you might have to stand next to someone different to you. Social media –which Tolstoy certainly wasn’t contending with- encourages us to surround ourselves with groups of like-minded people who don't unsettle our assumptions about the world. There is also a rise in narcissism, the me culture - it wasn’t always normal to take 38 photos of yourself in one go, then apply a filter, and send them out to someone sitting within shouting distance.

Photo by Kate Raworth

I’ve always been fascinated by other people and their stories. People with different experiences mean different stories. Before I ran the Empathy Museum I curated The Museum Of. One of the projects I curated was The Museum of Collectors. We invited more than 40 local residents to display their own private collections—toast racks, cheesy record covers, rejection letters, Dolly Parton memorabilia, snow domes, electrical insulators, drinks cans (full) and 15,000 toys from inside Kinder eggs. We interviewed each person in their home about their collection and what it meant to them and then, working alongside a theatre designer, we asked them how they’d like their collection to be shown – so for example, we built Dolly Parton’s living room to show the Dolly Parton collection. The stories we heard were surprising, moving and deeply personal reflections on a relationship with these objects.

Stories are agents of change. Recent research by the Princeton neuroscientist Ura Hasson using MRI scanning has revealed that when a storyteller and a listener really engage with one another the neural patterns in their brains begin to synchronise. There’s something about the way that art can create spaces for that to happen which is really exciting, like a kind of transformation is possible.

With the Empathy Museum, what I’m trying to do is bring people into contact with those very different to them, to invite them to step out of Tolstoy’s circle of sameness. Empathy differs from sympathy in that it’s the capacity to understand or feel what another person is experiencing - from that person's point of view. It’s not about judging or a patronising sense of ‘poor them, aren’t I lucky not to have that happen to me.’ It doesn’t matter whether that person is a hedge fund manager from London, a Syrian dentist or a Vietnam veteran. I don’t know what it’s like to be any of those things; but by placing myself in those people’s shoes, I’ll learn something, reflect on my own identity and values – but also discover things in common with the storyteller that I wasn’t expecting. And that’s what our current project, A Mile in My Shoes, does, quite literally – invites you to walk a mile in someone’s shoes while listening to them tell you a story.

Photo by Cat Lee

Since 2015 when we started the Empathy Museum, we’ve collected over one hundred and fifty stories. For our new version of A Mile in My Shoes at the Migration Museum, we’ve recorded twenty new stories from people who’ve moved here from elsewhere in the world and made London their home. The strength of the collection lies in its diversity of voices. It offers an alternative to the single-voice narratives of institutions, corporations and governments. There's an element of randomness too: the people you get to know first are the ones who have the same shoe size as you. The stories are varied, personal and moving, but they touch on shared human experiences of loss, love, hope, grief and laughter.

Laughter is important. A Mile in My Shoes is a really playful project. Putting on someone else’s shoes is like dressing up – you’re still you but you’re tottering along on stilettos or trying to stay upright on roller-skates. It’s a fun yet powerful experience that invites you to listen in a different way. The ‘museum’ itself looks like a giant shoebox, not your traditional foreboding castle of culture.

Photo by Kate Raworth

Migration is a complex issue and we’ve been careful to invite people to tell the story they want to tell – not to cater to the appetite for misery porn that seems to exist in some places. We recognise the serious issues affecting some of the people who contributed; we found that when people tell their stories, they absolutely shared difficult moments and challenging events but also humour, love and humanity. And that’s also a lesson – it can be tempting to think of someone as ‘a refugee’ and forget that they’re also a husband, a dentist, a dad, a Bowie fan or an Arsenal supporter.

I still don’t know anyone who voted leave. I don’t know if my friend managed to chat to her brother about Trump. I don’t think that the Empathy Museum can make things better for our divided society overnight. But I do think if we can learn to listen to people who’ve had different experiences to us and make the leap to imagine the world from their perspective, that would be a good thing. And it might even be more enjoyable than finding the right filter for your next selfie…
The Empathy Museum is produced by Artsadmin.

A Mile in My Shoes at
The Migration Museum
The Workshop
26 Lambeth High Street
London SE1
8-25 February
11am to 5pm, Wednesday to Sunday
More info: