At first, A Mile in My Shoes, by the “Empathy Museum”, feels like it could be one of those public festival works which draws a crowd simply because it’s a cute, participatory idea — and free. But it can be a surprisingly profound experience.
Sitting at the top corner of Stirling Gardens is an oversized shoebox, packed full of over 30 pairs of shoes. You pop in and one of the staff helps you to find a pair of shoes approximately your size. You swap your own for a stranger’s shoes, don a pair of headphones, and set off wherever you might want to wander around the garden.
It could be seen as a bit of a gimmick, and this was my impression at first. But the moment you step into those shoes and hear the voice of their owner coming through your headphones, it becomes something unexpectedly intimate.
You become quickly aware that you’re the only person in the world hearing the story of this other person — who could be anywhere, doing anything at this point in time. And the headphones isolate you from anybody else who you might encounter on your walk.
The shoes in this piece all belong to Western Australians, from all walks of life. There are shoes belonging to sex workers, FIFO operators and refugees. I walked in the shoes of a woman whose daughter was the victim of an horrific murder, an Aboriginal elder from the local area, and a volunteer rural firefighter. The experience of each was vastly different — the woman gave extraordinarily vivid descriptions of the grieving process, the Aboriginal elder traced the various ways his family has been systematically oppressed and survived over the last century, and the firefighter painted a terrifying and palpable picture of the pressures at the heart of a natural disaster.
Your experience would depend entirely on whose shoes you ended up stepping into, but as they’re only ten minutes each (you won’t walk a full mile), it’s worth taking a few of these fascinating people for a quick wander.
According to the creators of the work, Clare Patey and Kitty Ross, this should be an exercise in empathy — the very title comes from the phrase most closely associated with notions of empathy. And while these deeper themes about understanding and the things which connect or separate us as humans didn’t strike home too clearly for me, it’s a simple and beautiful work of storytelling and sharing. And that’s reason enough to experience it.