Recollect: Shoes @ The Powerhouse Museum

Early riser, no. Not me. I’d love to be, but somehow the bed is always too comfy, or I forget why I’m getting up before dawn.

Running to catch the plane, a first time for everything. Security person, why you stop me for ‘explosives testing’? MY PLANE. Yes, it’s all about me. But you were still being a jerk.

Sydney. Why did I spend so many years hating you? Was it because my heart was filled with loathing? Probably. You are an interesting city with delicious brickwork. DELICIOUS BRICKS. And yes, random and lost old lady, I’ll help you find your way in a city I have no idea about and despite language barriers. Google Maps, though.

Powerhouse Museum. But first, pastry. Barista boy, don’t taunt me with hypothetical chocolate doughnuts. I want none of your hipster jive, give me my fucking cherry danish. I’M FAMISHED.

Pay to get into the museum? No, I’m here to see someone. No, you can’t call them to meet me, they are in a meeting. I’M TOTALLY LEGIT, may I please check my coat?

The Queen’s knickers were awesome. With such fragile objects on display low lighting is critical*, but that meant I couldn’t see the tiny hand-stitching very well. Corsets are, for me, passé – they are beautiful, narrative objects, but the spotlight shines too brightly on their discourse. Give me mundane, unassuming objects anyday (ie, bloomers), and I’ll unravel their stories through construction and usage. The physical construction of objects is endlessly fascinating, showing both the hand of humankind through time as well as individual qualities of materials.

Recollect: Shoes. I circled like a shark** for a good 40 minutes before stopping to mentally deconstruct specific footwear. The beautiful, well-lit cabinets of the static Recollect space showcase various object types from within the museum’s collection. It’s an area conspicuously devoid of information panels – the focus was museum-collection-object (there was a display, however, of a basic oxford in various stages of construction). Some interactive aspects were included – a wall of lasts to touch and explore***, including their amazing history, and digital films of the process of shoemaking.

Pedorthic lasts displayed at the Powerhouse Museum (MAAS), Sydney

For the regular patron, the Recollect: Shoes exhibited historic, ethnographic, and fashionable footwear from the Joseph Box collection, continuing though a timeline of women’s footwear to modern Australian examples, then smaller displays of men’s, sporting, theatric and children’s footwear. It was interesting – an exhibit of curiosities to spark conversation.

For the patron schooled in museum theory, Recollect: Shoes harkened back to the cabinets of wonder: the typological, encyclopaedic displays of objects, from natural history to ethnographic, the methodology of such being cultural imperialist propaganda demonstrating the microcosm of the known world. However, Recollect: Shoes didn’t dig into propaganda. It was more, “Hey look what we’ve collected – isn’t it cool?” And yes, it was very cool. Having a background in museums, I knew where to look for specific information (the object labels were on the storage housing, also on display), and could understand how the collection was sourced, and why objects were displayed in the manner they were.

For the patron schooled in footwear design and construction, Recollect: Shoes was a gold mine of information. Most footwear students have read Stepping Out: three centuries of shoes, and it was a wonderful to see finally the shoes ‘in the flesh’, including Westwood’s Super Elevated Gillie. AND THE TINY, PERFECT STITCHING (most stitches on the footwear were 1mm). SWOON.

Whenever I have a pair of shoes in for repair, my mind always returns to the reCollections museum collections manual and the catalogue of types of damage to objects. A super-neat display titled “CSI: Conservation Studies” encapsulated this process – objects (a pair of 70s platform shoes with crumbled platform sole) were assessed for restoration possibilities, but determined as beyond repair because of the material composition (polyurethane or “PU”) and the damages its suspect to (crumbling in moist environments). I’ve had the same style of shoe pass my way for repairing, and gone through the same thought process (ie “nope, not with that sole”). Over the years I’ve noticed that many materials used in modern footwear don’t handle even basic environmental changes well (from their storage cupboard to my workshop), deteriorating more quickly once they are in my hands. Apologies people, no more PU leather platform shoe fixing from me.

CSI: Conservation Studies - the case of the crumbling sole


My favourite display, though, were ROLLERSKATES (surprise?). 3 historic pairs were on display c1900-1923, c1930-1950, c1970, as well as some sweet ice-skates. These old skates had wonderful lines – the pattern pieces flowed together so well. They must have felt amazing to wear. The women’s skates, c1900-1923 were my favourite: the heel strap was beautifully curved, with an external counter and a lovely vamp. The toecap and eyelet reinforcing were delicately brogued, and all stitching was .8mm – so tiny! From what I could see, the boot was blake stitched onto the sole, then a thin leather cover was placed on the sole (because blake stitching looks bad? I have no idea). The heel was stacked leather, and the sole at the toe had a wedge built on to accommodate the spring. These skates had a separate vegetan leather ‘cup’ the heel sat in, the cup was riveted to a steel plate for the wheel mechanism. I couldn’t quite make out, but I think the boot must have been bolted onto the plate somewhere around the waist. The most amazing part of these skates, though, is the provenance. The collection database notes their history, and includes a photograph of the skate’s owner wearing them.

PHM RollerSkates

PHM IceSkates

I’d arranged a walkthrough of Recollect: Shoes with the curator, **** she was kind enough to give me half an hour of her time explaining particular exhibition and collection issues. I was also able to have a brief tour of the collection store, to further discuss collection management problems, such as housing and material deterioration. My thanks to the Powerhouse Museum staff for their generosity.

Sociocultural objects collected by museums are typically mundane – average and everyday, they tell us the story of past lives. The Powerhouse Museum’s footwear collection is generally so, excepting a few special pieces such as Queen Victoria’s elastic gusseted boots. I wonder what footwear will be collected for museums within the next century. Modern manufacturing techniques and material composition don’t lend themselves to permanence, exemplified by the CSI: Conservation Studies display. In a market oversaturated by cheap footwear what would we want to collected, and will it last the test of time?

* Kids, that’s why you aren’t allowed to take photos with flash in a museum/ gallery – lumens are damaging!

** I made strange little squeaking sounds throughout my time in this exhibit.

*** The majority of the lasts were pedorthic, curiously built up and fascinating in themselves.

**** How did I arrange this? I emailed them. That’s about it. It also helps knowing what I’m talking about – one of the privileges of education.