My Heaven: An Exhibition on Shoes

I’ll admit it: I have a shoe problem. I’m also pretty sure that any of my friends could tell you that I have a ridiculous amount of shoes, most of which I can’t wear on a daily basis. I’m not entirely sure when it started, or why for that matter, but shoes are definitely my favorite part of any outfit. Just to give you a better understanding, when I was working on college applications (which feels like eons ago) one of the supplementary prompts was “Why did you do it?” That’s a pretty open ended question, with endless opportunities and guess what I wrote about: buying a pair of shoes. It was definitely my favorite essay to write out of all of the supplemental college essays I wrote that year. I hadn’t done any other academic work on shoes until my senior year of college when I took a class on the History of Gendered Fashion. I then gave a presentation on the gendered history of shoes starting in the 14th century working my way to the present. (If you ever find yourself bored  looking at the Met’s collection of shoes was a lot of fun. I highly recommend it.) I know I was critical of the Met’s Costume Institute last week but I am always in awe of their shows and their collection and secretly hoping that they’d do a show exclusively on shoes.

Now I’m sure you’re asking yourself, “What does this have to do with museums….isn’t that what this whole blog is supposed to be about?”  Well, my dream has come true and the world has combined two of my favorite things: museums and shoes!

There is an entire exhibition dedicated to shoes at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts that opened November 19th,2016 and will be on display until March 12, 2017. The exhibition is called Shoes: Pleasure and Pain, a very fitting description of any shoe lover’s twofold relationship with any pair of shoes. As their press release states, the exhibition was organized by the Victoria and Albert Museum in London and consists of over 300 pairs of shoes (110 of which are from the Peabody Essex Museum’s collection) “that explores the creative potential, cultural significance and transformative” power of shoes. This exhibition also follows the evolution of technology to reach new heights and creative shapes.

According to the few articles I have found on the exhibition, the show is divided into thematic categories: Transformation, Status, Seduction, Creation and Obsession. In contrast to the Met’s understanding of fashion, as telling of the creativity of the designers on display, the Peabody Essex’s Deputy Director and coordinating curator Lynda Roscoe Hartigan believes that “Shoes are about the personal creativity of the designer and the person who wears that shoe” because “creation is about communication.” In the case of this exhibition, it isn’t just the designer of the shoe who makes it famous, it can also be the person who wore it, as is the case of the blue 9-inch heels worn by Naomi Campbell during the infamous 1993 Vivienne Westwood runway show fall.  Now this show isn’t just dedicated to the innovations of women’s shoes throughout history. For any male shoe lover, there are the very noisy slap-sole shoes from the 17th century as well as shoes worn by Elton John and David Beckham. (There is probably more than just three pairs of male shoes, but those are the only ones mentioned in recent write ups)

This exhibition sounds exactly up my alley, combining history and innovation into one show with my favorite subject matter at its epicenter. More importantly, the Peabody Essex Museum shop has transformed into a shoe store for the duration of the exhibition! What could be better than a shoe store in a museum?!  Well, how about giving back? The Museum is also running a shoe drive (which closes today) for women’s shoes to be donated to Dress for Success Boston. Considering it just closed, I’m not sure how successful the drive was (the last Twitter update stated 657 pairs) but it definitely is a nice way to give back to the community while also helping promote your own exhibition.

What’s been frustrating about doing some reading on this exhibition is the lack of images of the exhibition/collection. As seen on the exhibition page, there are just a few images of the shoes in the exhibition but there are no installation photos of the exhibition itself. Considering the exhibition has now been open for almost two weeks, this seems a little unusual. Their press release states that official images and captions could be shared upon request, but that cannot really help their promotion of the exhibition. While I’m the type of person who wants to see the exhibition regardless of the availability of installation images, there are definitely people who want to see how a space looks before going. Even their promotional video doesn’t give any clues of what the exhibition looks like. Maybe when the exhibition has been open a little bit longer, some images of the exhibition will surface.

I did notice that the Peabody Essex Museum’s Twitter  has shared a “Shoe Story” in relation to the exhibition. It wasn’t made entirely clear on their Twitter if this is meant to be a promotional event, because there wasn’t a hashtag associated with the tweet. Maybe they are sharing stories that were shared with them in exhibition? I definitely think this could be a valuable promotional tool for them though, should they create a hashtag like #pemshoes for people to share their stories and experiences at the exhibition. It seems like the Peabody Essex Museum could be doing a lot more to get their exhibition some internet publicity.

 

Either way, it seems like a trip to Boston and Salem are in my near future!

 

 

 

 

There are Many Ways to Collect…

Today I was reading an article by Alexandra Jacobs about two different exhibitions on fashion: one at the Henry Ford Museum outside of Detroit, Michigan and the other at the Costume Institute at the Met in New York. As the article outlines, the shows focus on two very different sections of America’s fashion history, thus highlighting two different collecting/curating techniques found in museums across the country. The Henry Ford Museum’s exhibition “American Style and Spirit”which displays the wardrobe of Augusta Roddis, a longtime advocate of education and daughter of a lumber mogul. In stark contrast, the Met just opened an exhibition entitled “Masterworks: Unpacking Fashion” which highlights extravagant and avant-garde works from the likes of Chanel, McQueen, and Versace. As Jacobs notes in her article, these shows are paradigms of two battling curatorial practices: “populist versus elite; contextualized versus abstracted; local versus global.”

As the Costume Institute’s curator, Andrew Bolton, makes clear, the collecting focus of the Met “prefers runway samples” because they “reflect the designer’s original intention.” This preference places the importance not on the people who actually wore the outfit, but rather the person who created it. Just as there is a canon in art, Mr. Bolton aims to elevate members of the fashion community into a similarly styled canon. This idea is readily seen in the recent shows at the Costume Institute such as “Manus x Machina” and even “China: Through the Looking Glass”. These exhibitions brought together works from a variety of eras and designers to discus larger themes, rather than tell the story of a single person. These shows also bring together blockbuster designers in order to create crowd appeal. “China: Through the Looking Glass” was the Met’s most popular exhibition in years in part because of its use of historic Chinese attire as a foil for contemporary high-fashion designs. The most recent shows at the Costume Institute scream of elitism because most people can only appreciate these intangible designs from an aesthetic perspective. There is very little relatable material at the Costume Institute exhibitions, and in many ways that is their appeal; these exhibitions are an escape from the every day into the extraordinary world of fashion gods like Anna Wintour. They are Vogue Editorials brought into the museum.

The Henry Ford Museum exhibition is the polar opposite. “American Style and Spirit” uses the wardrobe of Augusta Roddis as a means to discuss what America was like at the time. Instead of putting the visitors into an awestruck stupor, Jeannine Head Miller, the museum’s curator of domestic life, “wanted to bring people into the exhibit and not feel like they had to be fashionistas to enjoy it.” Much of Ms. Roddis’ wardrobe was made by anonymous dress makers, with only the patterns evidence of a dress’s creation. The focus of this exhibition, then, is on the story these clothes can tell, in collaboration with letters and receipts. While the Met and the Costume Institute focus on the garment and the creator, the Henry Ford Museum uses its fashion archive to tell another story about America’s past. There is a contextualization that does not appear in the theatrical shows on display in New York. But perhaps that’s okay.

Reading this article got me thinking more deeply about museums, both small and large, and their role in defining culture. If we looked solely at institutions such as the Met as the source of fashion culture and history, the only names that would be seen as important would be those featured heavily in their exhibitions. Mr. Brodrick has made it clear that his fashion preference is “designers who in a way make us think differently about fashion, who go beyond notions of wearability or functionality,” but what about the designers who don’t fit that mold? While the avant-garde designers are certainly making waves in fashion with their daring style, there are certainly designers worth noting who make clothes for the every day woman. If these clothes are not being collected as well, how will the exhibitions of the future look? Certainly, people cannot think that the Yves Saint Laurent dress made out of bird-of-paradise feathers was worn by every woman? Only time will tell.

What someone choses to collect tells a lot of about the collector, but also deeply influences how the past will be seen by generations to come. The Met, through their fashion archives, tells a very particular story about a very small subset of fashion throughout history.  The Henry Ford Museum is attempting to tell a different story, one that contains some of the same high fashion names but also brings to light long-forgotten designers and stores. There are so many other stories out there, but it seems like no one is out there collecting them. Unfortunately, beginning to archive the everyday is an impossible task that creates a very slippery slope of what is worth collecting. Fashion changes so frequently and it is near impossible to know what will have a lasting effect on fashion years from now. But I think it’s worth a shot to try and tell the non-obvious story. It’s my hope that other institutions will see the possibility of looking at the mundane as a means to creating a larger narrative.

Stamps, Stamps, Stamps

My Trip to the National Postal Museum

How many Smithsonian Museums can you think of right now? I’ll give you a minute to think about it. Go ahead. Got it? So you’ve probably named all of the ones located on the Washington Mall, and maybe the National Portrait Gallery/American Art. At most, that’s only fourteen out of the eighteen Smithsonian Museums located in the DC Metro area.  I can probably guess that you didn’t think of the National Postal Museum, or even better, that you didn’t know there even was one. Don’t worry about it, though; I didn’t know it existed until this past Friday, either.

Located in NW DC, in the old City Post Office building, the National Postal Museum was founded in 1993 when 100,000 sq. feet of the building were transformed into a museum from the “preservation, study and presentation of postal history and philately [stamp collecting].” Through 35,000 sq. feet of exhibition space, the National Postal Museum offers its visitors insight into the evolution of the postal service from its earliest iteration to the modern day in addition to a stamp collection of over 5.9 million items (an impressive number regardless of the type of item).

I have to admit, this didn’t sound like the most exciting museum to visit on a beautiful Friday, but my friends and I had some time to kill and it was close to their apartment. We walked into the National Postal Museum’s door around 12:00 PM on Friday afternoon and as we had joked about on the short walk over, were the only visitors visible on the first floor. Try going to any other Smithsonian at the same time and you’ll be greeted with lines to get through security and then at least 100 other people in the lobby. But I’ll take an empty museum over a crowded one any day.

The first exhibition we went into was the William H. Gross Stamp Galleries on the main floor. This exhibition consists of 12,000 sq. feet of gallery space which were constructed in 2012 as an addition to the original museum building. Because these were the newest galleries, they had the most in-gallery tech and, therefore, were the most engaging galleries I encountered during my visit.

Stamps are extremely light sensitive if you are hoping to preserve them because they are made of thin paper. There are stamps in the Stamp Galleries that are from the middle of the nineteenth century and some that are even earlier than that, making them challenging to display. How the Stamp Galleries dealt with that was by using motion sensors that activate the lighting that displays an old stamp. By doing this, these old, and very sensitive, stamps aren’t always being subjected to the damaging light needed for visitors to see them. This technology was actually a lot of fun to play with at the National Postal Museum because I couldn’t quite figure out where the sensor was, or how close I needed to be to the display case. I did spend some time, jumping around and moving very close and then backing away from these cases, much to my friends’ enjoyment, in order to turn the light on. While this might have been frustrating after a while, there were only about 4 cases that used this technology, keeping my antics on the fun side rather than exasperating.

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One of the Display Cases Using Motion Detection to Preserve old Stamps

Even cooler than the light sensors were the very large screens in the middle of the exhibition. These screens displayed a multitude of stamps that I could manually scroll through (I’m unsure if these were all of the stamps in the museum’s collection or just some that had been digitized). This was pretty cool in and of itself because I could click on any stamp on the screen to learn more about it and even zoom in on the stamp to better examine one section. These also allowed me to filter the stamps by date, state, theme, or any keyword I wanted. I could also click on any stamp and “Add It to My Collection” and then email my collection to myself. I would say it’s a similar practice to using the Pen at Cooper Hewitt to curate your own collection.  These screens were large and intuitive enough that I saw a few younger children also playing with the screens to find stamps they liked.

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Touch Screen to Create Digital Stamp collection

What I honestly enjoyed the most out of the exhibition, however, wasn’t something educational. Located in the middle of the exhibition was a table with bins filled with loose stamps for visitors to sift through and start their own stamp collection. Also on the table was a screen that invited me to create my own stamp. On the left hand side were a variety of images such as flowers, animals, words, or shapes as well as a button saying “Take a Picture.” Growing up in the selfie era, I couldn’t resist the opportunity to create a stamp with my own face on it, especially if I looked really goofy. I got one of my friends to agree to my silliness and I pressed the button and was counted down to the flash going off 5 time (think old fashion photo booth). Because neither of us were fully prepared, the photos were definitely a little silly but we picked the best one and then were given the option to embellish the stamp however we wanted. After we edited our stamp, we were also given the option to send out stamp “Into the Past” and the computer altered the stamp into an old fashioned 5 cent stamp complete with a grainier version of our photo.

Just like the digital stamp collection, I was able to send the personalized stamps to myself via email. It’s a brilliant idea and way to engage visitors because it turns into a simple little memento of my trip that I was then able to upload to Instagram later in the day and it didn’t cost me anything. Instead of going to the gift shop and spending money on a pin that anyone else could own, I have a personal reminder of that trip to the National Postal Museum.

The William H. Gross Stamp Gallery is just a small part of the National Postal Museum but it deftly reflects the ways in which technology can be used to preserve the collection, educate its visitors, and create a space for fun engagement with the content. It’s definitely worth a visit, if only for your own stamp selfie.

 

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My Stamp Selfie

A Too Brief Trip to Mali

A review of Mud Masons of Mali at National Museum of Natural History

 

 

Tucked back into the corner on the main floor of the National Museum of Natural History is the exhibition African Voices. Within this section of the museum, is the exhibition on the Mud Masons of Mali. This exhibition was originally launched in 2013 as part of a larger project the Smithsonian “Earth Matters” initiative as a temporary exhibition. The Mud Masons of Mali show focuses on five masons in the UNESCO world heritage site Djenne in Mali, West Africa. These five men are just a few of the masons in Djenne who construct houses, stores, and the town mosque out of local mud. This construction technique is thousands of years old and one makes up one of the last earthen cities in the world. The people and masons of Djenne are a fascinating group to read and learn about, but the exhibition designed by the National Museum of Natural History leaves much to be desired when exhibition a culture vastly different from the United States

First, the location of gallery space within the museum is problematic. As stated at the beginning of the review, the African Voices space within the museum is located in a back corner of the museum next to the Ocean Hall. This is already an off-putting and unusual choice as both the Hall of Mammals and the Hall of Human Origins are also located on the same floor. I could not help but ask myself why this gallery space was located where it was because it appeared to an afterthought, or at least a decision to use previously unused space. It seems unlikely that the African Voices section of the museum actually receives much traffic, both because of its obscure location and emptiness during my visit on a Tuesday evening.

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The Mud Masons of Mali exhibition is a small single-room gallery right at the beginning of the African Voices galleries. The gallery space is perfect of a small, temporary exhibition that would be around maybe six months at the most, but it is far too small for an exhibition that has been around for over three years. When I first entered the exhibition I was really excited to see what the National Museum of Natural History had put on display about such an incredible group of people. I had previously heard of the Mud Masons of Djenne during my undergraduate studies, so I walked into this gallery expecting a lot more than what I encountered.

The exhibition consisted of one room with a smaller center divide in the middle of the room. The walls were covered in photographs from Djenne with only three small cases with a total of 9 objects. My initial reaction to the exhibition was one a disappointment because, to be honest, I assumed that since the National Museum of Natural History made the decision to put on an exhibition about the Mud Masons, there would be more than a few panels with photographs and the occasional physical object.

The very first wall you encounter as a visitor has a brief opening statement about the Mud Masons and displays the five portraits of the highlighted masons. This is a clear attempt to make a personal connection to the faces from the other side of the globe. To reflect the portraits of the highlighted Masons, the exhibition has four videos playing on the opposite side of the gallery. These videos cover the major topics of the exhibition: the ancient architectural style, the challenges of the changing world, the trade secrets, and finally the travels and troubles of the five masons. These videos played on a continuous loop and battled with the noise of a video coming from the rest of the African Voices exhibition. The videos consisted of interviews with the five masons, which took place in the Netherlands, as well as footage that the masons shot themselves in Djenne. What I couldn’t quite get over from this initial interaction was this immediate sense of difference and quaintness that permeated the gallery.

As I moved to the next wall in the gallery the title struck me as a little odd given the context “Ancient Traditions in the Modern World.” Now that title in and of itself isn’t necessarily an issue, but as I continued to read the panel text, I couldn’t help but sense a feeling of otherness that didn’t sit well with me. None of the panels delved deeply into the cultural and historical context of Djenne and its building traditions, but rather just offered a quick, and very basic, snippet of information. By not offering greater cultural detail and context, the exhibitionary panels came off as “look at how quaint these people are” rather than “here is a culture that is different from ours.” Perhaps the best example of this was on the center divide. One side was entitled Blessing the Building, which dealt with the traditions and rituals the Masons followed in order to bless their constructions with good fortune and strength. Located on this panel were samples of various seeds, grains, and crops that would be blended into the building wall as a means to ward off evil spirits and bad luck. Similar blessing traditions can be found throughout various cultures yet the sub-text for the panel was entitled “Secret Spells.” This caption connotes, at least for me, a mysticism that is not necessarily as validated within Western Culture, and therefore diminishes the importance of this ritual in Djenne culture.

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After spending time in this exhibition watching all the videos and reading all of the text panels, I came the conclusion that the Mud Masons of Mali exhibition appears as less of an exhibition and more of an exhibition proposal. There is enough information present throughout the gallery to intrigue the visitor, but it seriously lacks the depth to do the masons and people of Djenne justice. Perhaps if this exhibition was expanded to the entire African Voices section as a temporary exhibition there, with each original panel being a topic explored in depth, the Mud Masons of Mali exhibition would be more of a success. Because as of right now, it feels very unfinished.