Inside the Collection

Curating shoes: from heel to toe

'Heel appeal' showcase 2014
‘Heel appeal’ showcase. Image: MAAS.

On 29 November 2014, the Museum opened ‘RECOLLECT: Shoes’ – a new exhibition inspired by the idea of visible display storage. Comprising more than 800 shoes dating from the 1500s to now, visitors can see everything from the first pair of elastic sided boots in the world made for Queen Victoria in 1837 to designer names like Louboutin, Yves Saint Laurent and Lacroix. RECOLLECT is a new style of exhibition which aims to showcase the Museum’s rich collection en masse; encouraging visitors to bring their own perspective, curiosity and creativity to what they see. Objects are displayed with their original object tags and tissue paper stuffing supports – just as they are housed in our basement storage facility – and arranged thematically.

Women's button boots from the Joseph Box collection
Women’s button boots from the Joseph Box collection. Image: MAAS.

In this post, I’d like to take you behind-the-scenes to share with you a snapshot of the curatorial process for developing ‘RECOLLECT: Shoes’ – from sorting through our vast collection of more than 1000 pairs and 300 single shoes to writing the exhibition brief, working with the external designers, preparing the object layouts, sourcing the shoe lasts for our art installation, creating our audio visual experience and developing our children’s activity to finally housing the shoes in their showcases. So, let’s begin by winding back the clock to late July, 2014 when I first started working on the project.

Photograph of empty 'The Vault' gallery space in early September 2014
‘The Vault’ gallery space in early September 2014. Image: MAAS.

At the time I took on the role of lead curator, my former colleague Lindie Ward, Curator of Fashion & Textiles, had already started fleshing out some thematic groupings and arranging our shoe collection around these. This included: ‘Staggering’ (high heels), ‘The long and the short of it’ (boots), ‘Teeny toes’ (children’s shoes), ‘Barely there’ (sandals), ‘Celebrated soles’ (theatre and film), ‘Out of the Box’ (the Joseph Box collection), ‘Where in the world?’ (ethnographic shoes) and ‘Activital’ (sports shoes). At this early stage of development, however, it was apparent that many of our shoes could fit within more than one theme, while other shoes didn’t necessarily fit any of these themes at all (for example, where would men’s dress shoes or women’s flat shoes fit?)! Another decisive factor influencing the grouping and selection of objects was the size of the exhibition space and showcases. ‘The Vault’ is a new gallery space for us (formerly occupied by bathroom facilities, our musical instruments collection and the MBF Magic Garden children’s experience). After demolition and dismantlement, this created almost 600 square metres of exhibition space for us to play with – exciting on the one hand, but somewhat challenging on the other. After all, shoes aren’t particularly sizeable objects!

Photograph of collection of shoes
Grouping the ‘Heel Appeal’ section. Too many shoes, too little space! Image: MAAS.

For almost 5 weeks, I spent every working day in our basement storage facility relocating, grouping, photographing and measuring shoes. This was imperative to not only familiarise myself inside out with our shoe collection (since I work across a number of different Museum disciplines), but to also inspect their condition and display quality in the context of their historical and social significance. It further provided an opportunity to conduct an audit of the collection – how many shoes do we exactly have (our database system has long suggested somewhere in the vicinity of 4500, but this has included each individual shoe – left or right of a pair – as well as shoe related paraphernalia, like archives, tools, shoe-shaped snuff boxes etc.)? Are they all accurately numbered, parted and documented? What types of shoes aren’t well-represented in the collection? And, are there any we should consider de-accessioning? The process of physically sorting through all the shoes was carried out at the same time as developing the exhibition brief – a document which details the exhibition’s content, vision, key aims, mood, public programme opportunities, collection management and security matters, marketing strategies and publishing and merchandising opportunities. It is, essentially, the ‘go-to’ document referred to by all members of the exhibition team. It outlines the experience we want to give our visitors and what resources we will need to fulfil this.

Photograph of fashion banners in RECOLLECT: Shoes
A glimpse of some of the fashion photography banners in RECOLLECT: Shoes. Image: MAAS.

Another component is the designer’s brief, which details specifications in terms of the gallery space, construction elements, showcase quantity and dimensions, lighting requirements, title walls, signage and, most importantly, the budget. I had the delight of working on ‘RECOLLECT: Shoes’ with external exhibition designer, Maria Briganti of Oblong Design, and graphic designers, Paul Clark and Lara Juriansz from Alphabet Studio in Surry Hills. I worked especially closely with Maria to create the object layouts in keeping with the themes – which slightly evolved and expanded upon Lindie’s original groupings to accommodate the richness and diversity of our collection. Maria worked from the photographs and dimensions of all the shoes I had taken to work out how many could fit on each shelf (and therefore, each showcase), as well as their positioning (front-on, in profile, sitting inside a support or mounted vertically on acoustic board).

Photograph of 'Bootiful' display in RECOLLECT: Shoes
‘Bootiful’ display in RECOLLECT: Shoes. Image: MAAS.

Given the main showcases are almost 3 metres tall, priority was given to the base of the showcases and the first three shelves when making the object selections. After all, these shelves receive the highest visibility; while shoes placed on the uppermost shelves were selected for either their tall forms or interesting soles to offer a different perspective of the collection, as well as to help emphasise the density and scope of our shoe collection. As a curator, I also wanted to create as much of a visual narrative as possible (given the emphasis of RECOLLECT on minimal textual interpretation). Therefore, some sections also feature a chronological sweep by decade – particularly, ‘Heel appeal’ which spans the mid-19th century to now. There are also some sub-groupings of shoes arranged by type – e.g. occupational boots are all displayed together, the performance shoes from Moulin Rouge are kept together and so on.

Detail of shoe lasts from the late Perkal Brothers
Detail of shoe lasts from the late Perkal Brothers. Image: MAAS.

Like any exhibition, however, there are many tasks to be juggled at the same time. So, while I was busily working on the selection and physical arrangement of the shoes (photographing every layout shelf by shelf and keeping a record of every object number), I was also busy sourcing shoe lasts from the late Perkal Brothers studio in Surry Hills for our installation feature, facilitating 12 new shoe acquisitions (this involved research trips to Melbourne on two occasions), researching and updating collection documentation, coordinating the interview and AV documenting Jodie Morrison and her shoemaking process, working with our Education team to develop a shoe ‘touch trolley’ experience, writing labels, selecting plinths with our designer to display particular highlighted shoes on and arranging for them to be painted by our workshop team, working with conservation to develop new shoe supports and prepare the layouts of shoes to be mounted on acoustic board, posting photos on social media and trying to build up public interest, sourcing and selecting quotes and images for our floor-to-ceiling banners, coming up with quirky and playful names for each of our sections (such as ‘Fleet Feet’ and ‘Bootiful’ – it takes more time than you might imagine!) and writing exhibition background notes for volunteers and gallery officers – just to name a few!

Installing the 'Out of the Box: the Joseph Box collection' showcase
Installing the ‘Out of the Box: the Joseph Box collection’ showcase. Image: MAAS.

While the gallery space was transformed over a period of 6 + months, the actual instalment of the shoes took around two weeks to complete. We worked showcase by showcase from the photographic layouts and design plans, carefully placing each pair (and single shoe) in their new home – adjusting the tags and spotlights as we went. In fact, our talented media production team video documented the entire process. As you will see in the YouTube clip below, a fairly large team of staff are on site for the install (but not always at the same time and not always moving that quickly!) – including the project manager, myself – the curator, the exhibition designer, graphic designer, registrars, conservators, electricians and carpenters. Each a specialist in their own field, no exhibition can be successfully opened without their invaluable contributions and expertise. [youtube] Once the install is finished, however, another task…or two, or three, or four (!) ensues. As the exhibition curator, there are media enquiries, interviews and TV appearances where you are expected to talk about the exhibition’s content – often at short notice. The curator also leads exhibition tours and briefs volunteers and gallery officers. Then there is exhibition maintenance – making sure the AVs and lights are working properly and reporting any problems to the relevant staff, ensuring the kid’s activity is running as it should and keeping the space looking tidy and respectable, following up any visitor feedback (both positive and negative) and continuing to promote the exhibition on social media. In fact, as a curator, you live and breathe your exhibition from the moment it’s conceived all the way through to dismantlement. Sometimes, you might even dream about it too! RECOLLECT: Shoes is on show at the Powerhouse Museum until 15 May 2015. See: for more information. Written by Melanie Pitkin, Assistant Curator

3 responses to “Curating shoes: from heel to toe

  • It is a wonderful experience to read the whole progress of this exhibition.First time I know that design the exhihibition is very hard working,that need be cooperation of diffrent departments,thanks for you working and bring visitors a miracle experience.

  • This is such a fascinating eye opener. Thank you for taking us ‘behind doors’. There seem to be so many people involved in planning and managing exhibitions that I wonder whether smaller museums working on stringent budgets would be able to keep up and hold their own in this industry, with its fascinating but costly processes, in terms of the human capital and material requirements.

    • Hi Lily,
      You’re absolutely right – smaller museums are incredible at making the most of their limited budgets and resources. You’ll often find that staff in smaller museums wear many ‘hats’ – for instance the curator might also perform registration and conservation work. There are other restrictions as well – museums need to meet certain standards of e.g. security and climate control to be able to qualify for loans of artefacts from major museums. I’ve loved visiting some of the museums around regional NSW in my job – it’s always inspiring to see the passion the staff bring to their work and the fantastic exhibitions they put on.
      Sarah Reeves, Powerhouse

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