I have just catalogued the 1930s photographs from The Dahl and Geoffrey Collings Archive as part of an internship project for my Masters of Art Curatorship at the University of Sydney. Although photography was only a small part of their practice, beginning in the mid 1930s, it paints a very broad picture of their holistic approach to art and design.
Warm weather changes the way we dress including what we put on our feet, initially I started thinking about strappy, elegant, contemporary sandals and yet when I looked at our collection I was drawn to a range of 19th century sandals from a variety of cultures and made out of unusual materials. Like the Japanese waraji sandals above, that were made out of vegetable fibre. Traditionally made out of a rope material of rice straw, waraji can be made out of various other materials such as hemp, stalks of my?ga, palm fibers, and cotton thread.
The word sandal derives from the Greek word ‘sandalon’ People wear sandals for several reasons, they are cheaper to make (sandals tend to require less material than shoes and are usually easier to construct), are comfortable in warm weather, and as a fashion choice.
Theories on the origins of footwear link the type and material to environmental considerations. Its thought in cold climates people would want to cover the feet up as much a possible for warmth and in hot climates the focus was on protecting the sole of the foot. Its likely sandals developed first in hot climates.
Theses sandals are made from pandanus fibre and were worn by locals in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) to protect their feet when walking over the sharp coral reefs and purchased by the Museum in 1898.
A definition of a sandal is “footwear consisting essentially of a sole which is attached to the foot by straps” 1. It seems a common understanding is that a sandal leaves most of the upper part of the foot exposed, particularly the toes.
These sandals pictured above was made in Burma in the late 19th century and are part of the Museums significant Joseph Box Collection. They were exhibited in in the Shoe and Leather Fair, Islington, 1895 and the Bethnal Green Museum Shoe Exhibition, London, England in 1897, described as: ‘Sandals, a pair; soles of leather stitched along rows at short intervals through large perforations, the tops of the soles are of thick felt; the feet are held by bands of flannel fastened between the toes to the soles. originally thought to be Armenian, footwear specialist June Swann, attributes the sandals to Burma.
These and many others were featured in the Museums 1997 exhibition ‘Stepping out: three centuries of shoes’ and documented in its accompanying publication.
1/ The feet of ingenuity: a catalogue of footwear, Horniman Museum, UK, 1993
To bide some time in the airport recently, I started to read Alain de Botton’s The Pleasures and Sorrows of Work (for which the title of this blog post gets its inspiration). Like a number of de Botton’s works I have read previously, I’m always captivated by his alternative ways of seeing. He looks at the details we typically overlook – in a philosopher meets cultural anthropologist meets the layperson kind of way – whether it is the work that goes into building a pylon, designing a biscuit (yes, you can design a biscuit!) or marketing a tin of tuna. All products of our everyday lives (which we all too easily accept without question), de Botton emotionally re-engages us with the meaning and purpose of work and, by extension, relationships, travel, finances and our psychological wellbeing. Not just a plate of tuna, for example, de Botton takes us back to the work involved in farming, catching, cooking, flavouring and tinning the tuna. We might pay less than $2 for a tin, but there is an extensive history behind that tin that we normally don’t give a second thought to before it reaches our supermarket shelves and consequently, our stomachs.
The more I read de Botton’s approach to the pleasures and sorrows of work, the more I thought about objects and material culture in the context of the museum. So much of what is designed and consumed by us is overlooked – from the work that went into the design of our toaster, our car, our lounge suite, our drinking glass, our heating or cooling system, our portable music devices and our television. For example, when was the last time you answered the phone and pondered how it worked? I’m guessing, only when something went wrong with it. Or, when was the last time you questioned the layout of the QWERTY keyboard? Maybe it was when you kept hitting the wrong key! We similarly undervalue tuna until there is a shortage or a pylon until the roof caves in. Okay, perhaps that’s taking it a little to the extreme, but what I’m really interested in as a museum curator, is how to make the invisible visible or the overlooked looked. How can we better promote curiosity and value with regards to the meaningfulness of everyday things? How can we communicate the very personal relationships we all share with objects and also, indirectly, each other? And, how can we foster these for the long term within the museum context?
I now draw your attention to Donald Norman’s book Emotional Design – why we love (or hate) everyday things. In this, he identifies three main levels in our cognitive and emotional system to which we respond to objects. The first level is our immediate, pre-conscious response which is normally triggered by the appearance, touch and feel of an object (he calls this visceral design). The second level is our experience with that object – its use, function and performance (behavioural design) and the third is our reflective, processing abilities. It is here that we use our reasoning and judgement to either form or break a relationship with an object for the long term (reflective design). The more I think about these, the more I question their relevance to museum objects – many of which were once, or still are ‘everyday’ objects. I mean, in a museum context, the sensory elements of touch and feel, use, function and performance are removed once that object is placed inside a showcase. I guess what we rely on then is appearance, memory or a vicarious experience (like watching AV footage) to activate our cognitive and emotional systems – but is this enough?
In this first post of a series of ongoing ones I intend to publish around museum objects and emotion, I’d like to try a little experiment. I’m calling upon all our readers here to share with us the most moving object they’ve seen in a museum. What was so powerful about the object and how did it help to shape your overall museum experience?
My name is Katrina Trewin and I am currently completing a placement in the Museum’s Archives. The professional placement forms part of my Master of Information Studies degree at Charles Sturt University, which I am undertaking via Distance Education thanks to the magic of online subject delivery!
During my time here at the Powerhouse Archives, I have been working on arranging and describing the archive of Enoch Taylor & Co., a shoe manufacturing company which has operated in Sydney from 1851 through to the present day. The Museum Archives acquired this collection in 2009, together with several shoes produced by Enoch Taylor & Co, during the company’s peak in the 1940s-1950s. The archive complements the collection of shoes and serves as an important historical resource for shoe manufacture and shoe import in Australia, as well as reflecting the changes in social custom and fashion through the decades.
My favourite items in the archive are the promotional catalogues, which showcase various shoe designs. The catalogues are undated, but from the illustrations and typography it appears they were produced in the 1930s or 1940s. Other interesting items in the archive include press copy letter books from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, through to 1925. I have never come across letter books before and was interested to learn that this is how copies were made prior to the use of carbon paper. There are letters about the day to day operation of the company, and every so often a reference to the impact of World War I on shipping and labour.
As it turns out, the museum’s relationship with Enoch Taylor & Co. began long before the acquisition of this collection. In the Institutional archives, Archives Manager Helen Yoxall discovered a letter from the company to the Museum, dated 1891. The letter seeks the museum’s advice about an insect that was attacking shoes at the Enoch Taylor & Co. warehouse. The Museum’s entomologist, Walter Froggatt, identified the beetle and made recommendations for its eradication. The Museum subsequently published Froggatt’s work in 1892, no doubt sealing the fate of all the beetles munching on leather shoes throughout Sydney at the time!
Thankyou to everyone in the Museum’s Registration department, especially Helen Yoxall, for making me welcome. It’s been a valuable learning experience and great to see behind the scenes of museum collection management.
Katrina Trewin, Archives Intern
Editor’s comment: Also in the Enoch Taylor collection and archive is, what we believe to be, a shoe gauge (for measuring the thickness of boots made for the army). However, we aren’t certain of this and would like to know more. If you think you might be able to help, please click here.