There are museums devoted to everything from old bones to contemporary art, so why not something functional that we all wear everyday? Although London is the centre of UK tourism, there are plenty of other places and sites to see. Less than 70 miles to the north of the capital is Northampton which sports a university, period buildings and gardens, and a museum with a unique collection.
Although the Shoe Collection is a gallery in a bigger collection, it would be fair to call it the Northampton Shoe Museum. It was in the news recently, and here just for you is one of its custodians, Rebecca Shawcross:
AB: Can I ask who you are, academic qualifications, how long you've worked for the museum, anything you care to add?
RS: [I have been] Shoe Resources Officer at Northampton Museum and Art Gallery since 1998...responsible for the Designated Shoe Collection, which includes collections management, exhibitions, research and enquiries, talks and advising other museums...various articles including I Stand Corrected? New Perspectives on Orthopaedic Footwear
, a research paper for the groundbreaking publication Re-thinking Disability Representation in Museums & Galleries
, edited by The Research Centre for Museums and Galleries, Leicester and ‘High Heels’
for the Encyclopaedia of Clothing and Fashion Edition
...[I am a] graduate [of] Oxford Brookes University [and have] also worked for Perth Museum and Art Gallery and the Scottish Life Archive, National Museums of Scotland.
AB: Is it fair to say Northampton is the centre of the British shoe industry? Leicester has a fair tradition.
RS: I think it's fair to say Northampton was
the centre for the UK shoe trade. Other places that had a significant shoe industry were Leicester and Norwich. Today the town and county are still significantly making timeless classic traditional men's footwear.
AB: Recently, you were featured on the BBC Breakfast news programme. Here it was claimed that someone once lost a pair of size 21 shoes - and they were produced to back it up. Did anyone claim these? And how can anyone lose a pair of size 21 shoes, do you have any insights into that?
RS: The trainers (plus another size 21 pair) were discovered abandoned in a carrier bag by a petrol station in Derby. The person who found them took them to Derby Police Station and they were transferred to lost property. They appeared several times in the local paper requesting their owner to come and claim them, but nobody did. I phoned up to ask that if possible could they be donated to the Shoe Collection and eventually after an appropriate time they were. It is a mystery as to who they belonged to, why they were abandoned...
AB: Is this a collection or is it considered a museum in its own right?
RS: It is a collection within Northampton Museum & Art Gallery. We are a museum with other collections including art, social and local history, numismatics, costume, decorative arts and military.
AB: There doesn't appear to be much information about you on-line. Can you point us to somewhere?
You can also follow us on Flickr, Facebook and Twitter.
AB: How big is your collection?
RS: Approximately 12,000 shoes and then another 30,000 shoe related items such as machinery, tools, shoe shaped objects, catalogues, shoe boxes, shoe polish, photographs, trade journals etc.
AB: How do you acquire your exhibits?
RS: We either generate them in house or on rare occasions have external funding. Our current exhibition 'World at Your Feet' was externally funded as part the Cultural Olympiad.
AB: Do you have donations, if so, what criteria do you use?
RS: The collection aims to include items connected with the designing, making, wearing and selling of shoes
We have many potential donations over the course of a year.
Our resources, and space, are prioritised to focus on areas of the collection that need developing. We will not accept any items that are already well represented within the collection unless there are very good reasons for doing so.
If shoes come in as a possible donation then I will check to see if they were made by a maker not represented in the collection, they were designed by a designer not represented in the collection, they belonged to a famous or significant person, they have a particularly interesting story attached to them.
Space is an issue with accepting machinery.
We also give consideration to condition, whether the item is suitable for display and how useful it might be for researchers.
AB: Are there any you would particularly like to acquire? I was thinking of like the boots Elton John wore in a certain film.
RS: We have strengths and weaknesses in the collection. We have on permanent loan and display the boots Elton John wore as the Pinball Wizard
in the film Tommy
We would be interested in acquiring the following if possible, though certain of these items are very rare and therefore very expensive:
Complete medieval poulaine
14th century chopine
Shoes by Salvatore Ferragamo from the 1930s
Shoes by Alexander McQueen, Beth Levine, Jan Janson
Pair of 1960s boots by Courrèges
Shoes worn by the Royal family particularly Kate and William
AB: The Museum is free to enter; how are you funded, and do you have any opinions on funding, as with this new government tax on rich donors?
RS: We are funded by the local authority Northampton Borough Council. We regularly apply for external funding from bodies such as MLA and HLF.
AB: Do you get many overseas visitors?
RS: Yes though it's difficult to give you numbers. Personally I get quite a few overseas enquiries.
AB: How do you see the future of the Museum?
RS: We have just had work done to improve the front end of the museum - new entrance, reception, shop area, the creation of a shoe lounge and improvements to some of the temporary galleries. Museums are having a tough time, but I think Northampton Museum will survive and get bigger and better.
AB: Rebecca Shawcross, thank you very much.
The following are extracts from a leaflet published by the Museum:
Northampton Museum is home to the Designated collection of Shoes and Shoemaking. The Museum has been collecting shoes since about 1870 and now has over 12,000 shoes dating from 1620 to the present day.
The collection contains men’s, women’s and children’s shoes. Some of these have been worn and some are samples made by the factories to advertise their wares...
There is an archive containing trade journals from Britain, Europe and the USA, catalogues and photographs. We also have a library of shoe related books...
Highlights of the collection include a boot made for an elephant, the stilts in the shape of a pair of Doc Martens made for Elton John to wear in the Pinball Wizard sequence in the film of ‘Tommy, A Rock Opera’, a pair of blue velvet shoes embroidered in gold made about 1660, the shoes Queen Victoria wore on her wedding day, shoes by Manolo Blahnik and Jimmy Choo and a pair of Super Elevated Ghillies by Vivienne Westwood (the style that caused Naomi Campbell’s downfall in 1994)...
For images of some of the shoes in our collection please visit our Flickr site