Tuesday, February 10, 2015

In Conversation with our Conservator, Ada Hopkins

Ada Hopkins with a dress currently on exhibit at the BSM 
By: Jessica Pollock, Communications Intern

I recently sat down with Ada Hopkins, conservator at the Bata Shoe Museum, to learn more about her role at the museum and conservation at large. 

1. What initially led you to be interested in conservation?

I was always interested in art history and archaeology. When looking at different academic programs, I liked the marriage of history, technology and chemistry in the field of conservation. As such, I decided to go to Algonquin College in Ottawa, which used to have a great conservation program.

2. How long have you been working at BSM as a conservator?

I’ve been working at the museum for 27 years! I started when the collection was still stored at the Bata headquarters near the Ontario Science Centre (which is now where the Aga Khan Museum is).

3. What technical training is required to be a conservator?

One has to go to school to study conservation. Most programs have mandatory internships that have to be completed during the school year or after one’s coursework is completed.

4. How does your role intersect with curators’ work?

Curators choose the objects that will effectively tell a story. Once the objects are selected, we will review them together and discuss their condition, what needs conservation and which require special display mounts. We also estimate how long the overall process will take in order to determine a work schedule that ensures everything will be ready for the installation of the exhibition.

5. What are some of the practices you employ to conserve the shoes in the collection?

The treatment always depends on what materials each shoe is made of. I just finished working on a pair of hiking boots worn by Group of Seven painter – Lawren Harris – because they are going into an exhibition. There are tiny paint splatters on the leather from when he was sketching outdoors that should never be removed. It is important to take any markings into consideration that may be integral to the wearer. Another example is a pair of tennis shoes worn by professional tennis player, John McEnroe. He used to cut the side of his tennis shoes to relieve the pressure on his toes while he was playing. I would never repair the tears as they are part of the wearer’s story.

Lawren Harris' boots
John McEnroe's tennis shoes

6. Are there specific pieces of technology or instruments you need for your work?

You definitely need a microscope to examine artifacts up close to determine their condition and what materials they are made of. If there is detailed analysis needed, the museum has contacts that have access to scientific equipment necessary for further examination.

7. What is the primary challenge you face when trying to conserve new artifacts that come in?

Well, every shoe is different. Sometimes they have been worn and sometimes they have not. Sometimes they have been kept in terrible conditions, while others have been taken care of. I really look at each pair to establish what immediate treatment is needed, if at all.

8. Are there certain artifacts that come in that are in conditions beyond the help of conservation?

17th century Persian boot
Yes. We have a single Persian boot from the late 17th century, which is unique to our collection. The museum acquired it because of its rarity and then had testing done on the leather, only to find that it was quite degraded. It had been squashed flat in storage, and its condition makes it impossible to be returned to its original shape. Nevertheless, it is a fine research example. If we choose to put it on display, it will have to be kept in a special climate controlled showcase.

9. Are there any ethical issues that you face in your work?

When you are dealing with material culture from diverse cultures around the world, one really has to be respectful and cognizant of their origin and symbolism.

10. What is the oldest shoe in the collection and how do you go about making sure it stays in optimal condition?

The oldest pair of shoes in our collection is of Egyptian origin and roughly 4500 years old. We were fortunate that it came to the museum in excellent condition. However, we ensure that when they are on display, we control the temperature and light levels surrounding them. We are definitely extra careful around a pair of shoes thousands of years old and as rare as these ones.

4500 year old Egyptian sandals

11. Would you argue that conservation is more of an art or science? Both?

I think it is certainly both.

12. What is your favourite artifact in the collection?

I really love the story behind Mikhail Baryshnikov’s leather derby shoes. They were the pair that he wore the day he defected from Russia, while on tour in Toronto in 1974. I also admire a pair of Indian padukas because they are technically very interesting. When filled with rose water, an internal pump, activated by the heel button, sprayed water on the wearer's foot with each step.

  Mikhail Baryshnikov's shoes
Wooden paduka

13. Do you have any advice for aspiring conservators?

There are many conservation programs – several in Canada, many in Europe and a few in the United States. Some specialize in certain kinds of artifacts, so it is best to decide what you would like to specialize in – painting, modern materials, textiles etc. This will help you determine what program is best suited for your interests.

14. What is the number one reason why people should come visit the BSM?

People are very familiar with shoes, since we all wear them every day! However, the museum provides our visitors an interesting lens into material culture with which to access social history.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Beyond the Glass: Seeing, Touching, Smelling, and Hearing

By Fiona Kovacaj, Education Intern

Have you ever walked around a museum wondering what an artefact would feel like, or what it would smell like, or how it would sound? Sometimes seeing is not enough and for that reason, the Bata Shoe Museum has an extensive hands-on collection full of artefacts that engage all the senses - you can see them, touch them, smell them  and hear about them— everything but taste! How good would a wooden clog taste anyway?!

Every Saturday between 1:30 and 3:30 PM, you can join one of our knowledgeable docents for a hands-on presentation in the BSM's permanent gallery All About Shoes. There, you may be surprised to encounter a massive Timberland boot custom made for Shaquille O’Neal’s. The former NBA star wears a size 22 EEE (extra, extra, extra wide). Since most shoe companies don’t mass-manufacture a size this big, Shaquille O’Neil had to custom order his Timberlands. At this point, you may be wondering how much this shoe weighs or how big it looks next to a smaller size. This is where the hands-on component is useful because you can feel just how heavy it is and you can compare it next to your own shoe to really get a sense of the size. And, of course, you can take a picture with it to show your family and friends.

Because this collection is so diverse, you might also discover a pair of Dutch clogs next to the colossal Timberland. Clogs are a traditional form of footwear in the Netherlands. They are carved from wood, usually poplar, and can be painted or left undecorated. Decorations range from simple initials to more elaborate painted scenes, meant to personalize and diversify the shoes. This particular pair is painted red and in the middle, framed by yellow tulips. There is a windmill in a meadow with the word Holland painted just above, which identifies these clogs as a tourist item. It you get to do more than just look at these clogs!  By holding one in your hands you are able to discover that it is surprisingly light and that the inside is very smooth. When walked gently along the table, it also makes a clunking sound, perfect for clog dancing!

Another fascinating artefact in the hands-on collection is a pair of Athapaskan moccasins. These are decorated with moose hair tufting, a craft invented by M├ętis women in the early 20th century. Tufting is a very difficult skill to master. It requires you to make a small pompom out of the hairs from a moose, which is a lot harder than it sounds! By running your fingers along the tufting you can feel the roughness of the moose hairs. Smell is a very important part of observing the moccasin. The scent is often identified as smoky. It smells like this for a reason! One of the major steps in the process of crafting a moccasin is hanging the skin over a fire. This step ensures that the moccasin is more water-resistant because the smoke fills up all the little holes.

The opportunity to see and touch an artefact enriches your experience with it. By holding the Timberland, the clogs, and the moccasins in your hands, you are able to make your own discoveries about them. This tactile experience is further enriched by an explanation from a docent who can guide the way you look at an artefact and provide interesting information about its function and creation. I can also verify, from my own experiences with the hands-on collection, that it is also a fun way to learn about the history of shoes!

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

From Function to Fashion: Platform and Wedge Footwear of the 1930s and 1940s

By  Myriam Elyse Couturier, curatorial intern

Platform shoes were first worn as beach footwear in the 1930s as the popularity of outdoor recreation and cruise holidays was rising, and were at the height of fashionability during World War II.  At the same time, wedges - shoes where the space between the heel and sole in filled in - emerged as standard urban footwear for European and North American women.

Not unlike the modern-day commentary on platforms and wedges, their functional nature and heavy appearance were initially criticized by women and observers alike - Salvatore Ferragamo himself anticipated that his orthopedic "wedgies" would not be favorably received by his elite clientele.  Early on, Vogue magazine encouraged women to embrace the wedge's "clumsy" appearance, eventually crafting a narrative that tied the shoe to broader social issues during the war years.  Platform and wedge shoes remained ubiquitous until the late 1940s, and eventually re-emerged as one of the most recognizable styles of the 1970s.  Let's take a closer look at some of the trends that emerged for platform and wedge footwear during the 1930s and 40s.

Cork Soles

Salvatore Ferragamo is widely credited for the invention of the wedge and the popularization of the platform in the late 1930s.  Due to economic sanctions placed on Italy after Mussolini's 1935 invasion of Ethiopia, and the resulting material shortages, Ferragamo had to make innovative use of unconventional materials in his shoemaking.  Cork soles - which had been used to make towering Spanish chopines centuries earlier - allowed for high, supportive, light and comfortable shoes.  His models were widely copied by other shoemakers.

Bally, Switzerland, 1937-40

Sensible Wedges
These sensible shoes would have been appropriate for walking comfortably around the city.  The fashion press highlighted the versatility of wedges, encouraging women to wear them in a variety of settings, describing them in 1938 as "A sole for any walk in life - street, sports, evening". During the war years, American Vogue urged its readers to demonstrate their patriotism through shoe restraint and sensibility - due to material shortages - but also through the act of walking, a practice that could preserve resources and lead to better personal health.

Seymour Troy, New York, 1940-50
Wartime Materials
On November 27, 1940, the sale of leather shoes was banned in France.  Wood became a popular substitute for making soles.  American magazines such as Harper's Bazaar commented on the stylish appearance of French women during the war, highlighting their wooden platform footwear, which became a symbol of occupation and rationing.  These platform shoes were purchased by an American soldier stationed in France.

French, 1944-45

Exoticized platform footwear of the period reflected Middle Eastern, Turkish, or vaguely "Oriental" inspirations.  American Vogue promoted platform and wedge shoes in various Orientalizing motifs for domestic wear.   This silk wedge sandal is representative of the post-WWII Western interest in Asian garments (such as the Chinese qipao or cheongsam dress) following the Pacific War.

China, 1945-49
The B1 exhibition From Function to Fashion: Platform and Wedge Footwear of the 1930s and 1940s will be on display until July 6th, 2014.

Monday, February 10, 2014

The Beauty of Beads

By Elizabeth Semmelhack, Senior Curator

Small, luminous and colourful, beads have been used to decorate footwear around the world for centuries. Historically beads have been crafted from a wide variety of natural sources such as pearls but even in ancient times some of the most desirable beads were made of glass. From the very beginning beads were more than simple decorative objects, they were an integral part of trade. Glass beads were a staple European trade good during the Age of Exploration and their eager embrace by people the Europeans traded with transformed the fashion across the globe. The beaded footwear from North America is a testament to this and to the versatility of beads and the inventiveness of beaders.  

Lakota, 1900. Moccasins with upper solidly beaded with white, rose and navy geometrical design on blue background. 

Among the most exquisite beaded shoes in the collection are the beaded-soled footwear made by Lakota women in the second half of the 19th century.  Not only are the uppers of these shoes fully beaded but the soles are as well leading some to suggest that they were never intended to be worn.  Some have even suggested that this type of footwear was made exclusively for funerary wear. However, every pair in our collection shows ample evidence of wear both inside the shoe and out establishing a much more celebratory function for these artifacts.  This is corroborated by late 19th century photographic evidence showing men wearing beaded-soled moccasins at important gatherings.  What is inarguable about these shoes is that they were painstakingly crafted labours of love.   Whether decorating a pair of 19th century Lakota shoes or embellishing the uppers of 18th century slippers, beads add a shimmer of colour that never fades and always fascinates.  

Here are a sample of other shoes from the BSM collection which use beads as a form of decoration.

Women’s pumps from the late 1700s are a created from a tiny beetle wing. We believe that the shoes which are made from embroidered linen were made in India and worn in England.
Boots such as these were part of the elaborately beaded and symbolically complex royal regalia that proclaimed the status of the oba or king of the Yoruba peoples.Nigeria, 1900.
Elaborately beaded shoes embellished with fresh water pearls. The peacocks on the vamps suggest that they were intended for royal wear as the peacock was an important royal symbol, and the beaded cypress trees symbolize longevity.
Persia, mid-19th century.