A Mile in My Shoes, the Empathy Museum
I slipped my feet into a pair of size three trainers and went for a walk; black canvas with white laces, a perfect fit. They could have been mine, but they weren’t. They once belonged to a woman just a year younger than me, just an inch taller, the same colour hair and seemingly the same sized feet – but with a radically different story to tell. She utters “how have I let this happen again?” when she finds herself in an abusive relationship, after having been made homeless with her baby a few years previous – I want to tell her to stop blaming herself…
A Mile in My Shoes, a travelling exhibition created and designed by the Empathy Museum and its director Clare Patey, is a moving experience where visitors are invited to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes – quite literally. Contained within a human-sized shoebox, this touring exhibit offers a diverse collection of shoes and audio stories that “explore our shared humanity”.
"The stories cover different aspects of life, from loss and grief to hope and love and take the visitor on an empathetic as well as a physical journey." The Empathy Museum
Thankfully, the story I was allocated closed on a more positive note; the narrator ends up as a fully qualified plumber – an accomplishment she would never have foreseen a few years previous.
We were lucky enough to trial this immersive exhibition at our Exhibition Planning Event, hosted by The Workhouse, Southwell, and were also able to glean insight into the processes that Clare Patey implements to create such memorable experiences for the public. Talking to volunteers and members of staff involved in the More Than Oliver Twist project, Clare shared with us a few top tips to help with exhibition development…
The morning spent with Clare and the Mile in My Shoes exhibition set the perfect tone for the afternoon; putting lessons learnt into practice, volunteers participated in three workshops all aiming to coax out equally imaginative ideas for our very own More Than Oliver Twist exhibition. Led by Jan Overfield Shaw (Creative & Community Officer, The Workhouse, Southwell) and Megan Dennis (Curator, Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse), the workshops drew out the initial thoughts of our volunteers, considering the obstacles and opportunities, concerns and aspirations of individuals, organisations and the stories we must work with.
An ambitious task, we had hoped that the day’s activities would give us a clear path moving forward - a confirmed format and ingenious concept for the exhibition so that we could begin development. But by the end of the day, it became clear that more work, more time and perhaps more guidance from museum professionals was needed. Despite this, we came away with an incredibly helpful list of clear objectives to work with, which can be consolidated into the following demands…
The exhibition must:
The development of the final exhibition must be a collaborative effort, involving both the Steering Committee and all volunteers that are involved in the project, countrywide. With this in mind, a digital space has now been created where volunteers can submit their ideas on how the final exhibition might take shape.
A month after the event, volunteers have used this breathing space to mull over the exhibition demands list, resulting in some brilliant proposals that we hope to develop further.
Here are just a few of the responses received after the More Than Oliver Twist Networking Event. And with plenty more jubilant and praising testimonials received, I cannot help but feel the event was a roaring success. Hosted by Nottingham Trent University, the day brought together volunteers, regional mentors and staff members from all six of our participating regional sites for the first time. The overwhelming sense of being part of a bigger project was what many came away with – volunteers from all corners of the country mingled with like-minded individuals involved in the project, sharing their initial discoveries, snags and successes.
A key part of the day was a well-received session delivered by Duncan Grewcock, Principal Lecturer in Museums and Heritage Studies at Nottingham Trent University. An enlightened presentation, Duncan helped volunteers to explore the creative approaches to interpretation and curation that could be applied to the More Than Oliver Twist project. Taking us through a plethora of curatorial techniques, from the creative use of film and sound, to considering the use of space and scale, the audience were visibly stirred and inspired by the possibilities for the final exhibition, with a final open-table discussion raising evocative questions concerning the politics of interpretation amongst others.
Bringing the day to a close, Jan Overfield Shaw, Creative and Community Officer for The Workhouse, Southwell, delivered a poignant presentation exploring interpretation within workhouse settings. The session was emotionally charged and challenged our volunteers by drawing parallels between the antiquated and problematic definitions used in the 19th century and the very labels we use today to categorise and control members of the public. By confronting us with the stark reality of social welfare then and now, Jan brought to light the essential need to discuss contemporary issues of social welfare throughout the project and final exhibition.
Entering its first stage of research, the "More Than Oliver Twist" Arts Council England funded project is off to a start. With Regional Mentors equipped with knowledge and resources, sites are planning and hosting their own Skills Sessions over the months of August and September, training and tutoring Research Volunteers to tackle the task at hand. The feedback so far has been one of enthusiasm and excitement as volunteers get ‘hooked’ on family history research.
Hosted by partner organisation Nottingham Trent University, the Mentor Training Day saw social historians, family history records experts and museums professionals pass on their knowledge with several inspiring discussions. Megan Dennis (Curator at Gressenhall Farm and Workhouse) started the day with a motivating introductory talk, followed by a succession of training sessions on methodology, national and local Poor Law records, record linkage and writing history, led by Andrew Gritt (Head of History, Languages and Global Cultures at Nottingham Trent University), Paul Carter (Principle Record Specialist for Collaborative Projects at The National Archives), Lewis Darwen (Research Associate, Roehampton University) and Audrey Collins (Family History Specialist at The National Archives).
Boasting a range of experience and backgrounds, it became clear early in the day that the project had recruited an incredibly knowledgeable Regional Mentor team – moving forward, we are excited to see how each team will approach the research, and the stories they will encounter.
Inspired by the desire to create a platform where workhouse sites could learn, support and engage with one another, the Workhouse Network is now launching its pilot project “More Than Oliver Twist” – an Arts Council England funded Subject Specialist Network project that works to place the resonant histories of workhouses and welfare into the political context of today.
After an incredibly productive meeting hosted by Southwell Workhouse, the project is now in full swing - the foundations of the research framework have been firmly mapped out, and exciting plans for an immersive experience to take place at the Networking Event are slowly coming to life!
July will see the first event on the project’s calendar come to fruition – the Mentor Training Day, hosted by Nottingham Trent University and headed by Andrew Gritt, Head of Arts and Humanities. The day is packed full of informative and insightful talks on the processes of family history research by guest speakers from Nottingham Trent University, Roehampton University as well as the National Archives, with the opportunity for Regional Mentors to informally discuss the project and get to grips with the task at hand! The event will establish our Regional Mentors as knowledgeable guides and equip them with the resources to lead their regional teams through a successful research phase.