How Elvis Inspired the World's First Empathy Museum

Current Events, Daily Life | empathy, museum

September 17, 2015 | by Roman Krznaric

Roman Krznaric, next to his creation, A Mile in My Shoes, the first-ever Empathy Museum in the form of a shoe box.

Roman Krznaric, founder of the first-ever Empathy Museum, Photo: Kate Raworth

Elvis said it all:

If I could be you, if you could be me
For just one hour
If we could find a way to get inside each other’s mind
Walk a mile in my shoes
Walk a mile in my shoes

This month on the River Thames in London you will find an unusual art exhibit that pays homage to to Elvis’s thoughtful lyrics. Called A Mile in My Shoes, it takes the form of an interactive empathy shoe shop, and represents the launch exhibit of the world’s first Empathy Museum

What does it look like? It’s a giant shoe box of course! Visitors enter and are fitted with the actual shoes of a person from a completely different walk of life–anything from a sewer worker or a woman who lost her family in a tragic accident to an ex-prisoner or a chess grand master. They then put on a pair of headphones and stroll for a mile along the riverside listening to the narrative of that person’s life while literally wearing their sandals, loafers, waders or stillettoes.

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Woman putting on shoes as part of a Mile in My Shoes, the first-ever Empathy Museum.
Photo: Kate Raworth

The experience is both playful and powerful. It’s fun to slip off your shoes and choose a pair belonging to a complete stranger. But it’s also a profound experience to actually immerse yourself physically in their shoes and hear their voice.

There’s an unexpected intimacy to it that, for most people, leaves a permanent mark on their empathic imaginations. 

The stories and shoes were selected from a cross-section of characters from a square mile where the shoe shop is located. It’s a kind of slice through the community and reveals the extraordinary variety and uniqueness of its inhabitants. As we take the exhibit to other cities and countries, we’ll be collecting more stories and shoes as we go.

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Girl in skates with headphones.
Photo: Kate Raworth

I had the idea for the Empathy Museum several years ago, speaking about it in an animated video called The Power of Outrospection. The huge public response to this convinced me that there was a hunger for new ways of creating a conversation in public culture about the role of empathy in creating social change. I then fleshed out the idea of the museum further in my book Empathy. But I still faced a problem: I’m a writer and philosopher and wasn’t really sure how to go about creating an international travelling art show. So I found a fabulous team to bring it to life, led by the Director of the Empathy Museum, the world-renowned community and ecological artist Clare Patey.

I think we need the Empathy Museum. I believe we’re at a key juncture in history where it’s essential to tackle the gaping empathy deficit that surrounds us. With growing wealth inequality in the US, the recent refugee crisis in Europe, continuing prejudices and stereotypes based on religious and racial differences that pervade public institutions like the police, and the growth of online narcissism, we must make the effort to walk a mile in other people’s shoes.

It’s by imagining what it might be like to someone other than yourself that we begin to break down the hyperindividualism that afflicts modern society, build the human relationships that bind us together, and lay the foundation for a more compassionate world. If it takes a giant shoe box to help make this happen, I’m proud to be part of it.

Roman Krznaric is the author of Empathy: Why It Matters, and How to Get It (Perigee/Penguin) and founder of the Empathy Museum.

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