Conservation in Action: Preserving Shoes and Footwear at the MFA Boston

Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Improving the safety and accessibility of the Textile and Fashion Arts collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston

Conservation in Action: Preserving Shoes at the MFA Boston
The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is improving the safety and accessibility of the Textile and Fashion Arts collection with the design and construction of custom storage mounts for costume accessories. Accessories are often fragile, three-dimensional forms with multimedia components. Because they are at higher risk of damage from handling, custom mounts are crucial for their protection. In addition to offering support, they reduce the need for handling because the accessories can be viewed in their proper orientation while in storage, greatly increasing the long-term preservation of these fragile materials. In 2001, a grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services funded the design and construction of mount prototypes for the accessories. The prototype mounts were later used as models for the systematic re-housing of the accessories collection, an initiative funded by the National Endowment for the Arts.

Shoe collection at MFA Boston

The MFA’s collection was started when New England was the center of the US textile industry. Today the Museum owns more than 40,000 examples of the textile and fashion arts ranging from American needlepoint to European tapestries, Middle Eastern rugs, African kente cloths, and haute couture fashions.

The collection of shoes numbers about 500 and ranges from Egyptian sandals of about 2000 B.C. to contemporary designer shoes.

Shoes and footwear stored in trays, boxes or surrounds
All mounts have trays, boxes or surrounds, which not only protect the edges of the shoes, but also reduce the need for direct handling of the shoes when they are moved or examined. Parts that become loose or separated are contained within the mount. Each mount also has a custom support made of fabric-covered padding or polyethylene foam, which maintains the shape of the shoe and supports its fragile parts.

Leather sandals stored in single handling tray

1/3: Design sketch for the construction of the mount.

Leather sandals stored in single handling tray

2/3: Leather sandals are paired to fit on a single handling tray made of acid-free board. Pillows of polyester batting covered in Tyvek are fitted inside the sandals to maintain their shape.

Leather sandals stored in single handling tray

3/3: “Footprints” are cut out of a layer of Volara foam to form depressions. The mount is covered with cotton knit, which provides the friction necessary to hold the sandals in place. Twill tape lifting ties are added on both sides.

Embroidered slippers stored on corrugated acid-free board stored in single handling tray

1/2: Design sketch for the construction of mount.

Embroidered slippers stored on corrugated acid-free board stored in single handling tray

2/2: Embroidered slippers are fitted on corrugated acid-free board, and “footprints” are cut out of a layer of Volara foam to form hollows that hold the slippers in place. Because the slippers have a fragile leather surface, silk knit is used to cover the mount. The inserts are made of polyester batting wrapped in acid-free tissue, and heavy weight acid-free paper strips are coiled to fill and support the inside of the heel. The slippers are also tied to the handling tray with twill tape, which are positioned where the tissue paper inserts supply resistance.

Court shoes stored on custom-shaped polyethylene foam

1/2: Custom-shaped polyethylene foam covered with Tyvek fill the void between the toe and the heel. The supports are adhered to the board and secure the mules without putting pressure on the heel. With the Volara foam stops added at the toes, the mount protects the mules from sliding or toppling when they are handled or when their storage drawer is opened and closed.

Court shoes stored on custom-shaped polyethylene foam

2/2: Corrugated board is used as the mount for these embroidered mules.

Vivienne Weswood platform shoes stored on lifting tray

1/2: The lifting tray, constructed with a center support and no sidewalls, allows full visibility of the shoes while in storage, which greatly reduces the need for handling.

Vivienne Weswood platform shoes stored on lifting tray

2/2: These Vivienne Westwood shoes also fit securely over heel supports made of Tyvek-covered polyethylene foam. The mount holds the shoes together and steadies them for lifting and moving.

Children's shoes stored on carrying tray

1/2: Similarly, these children’s shoes are stored in a carrying tray with lifting handles. This keeps the shoes paired together, while maximizing visual accessibility to limit handling.

Children's shoes stored on carrying tray

2/2: The shoes are filled with soft inserts made of polyester batting covered with polyester stockinet.

Baby shoes stored on carrying tray

The ribbons on this pair of baby’s shoes are rolled onto small tissue paper tubes to prevent creasing.

Leather shoes stored on Volara foam

1/3:A design sketch for the construction of mount.

Leather shoes stored on Volara foam

2/3: Depressions are made in the Volara foam to match the shoes’ footprints. Tyvek-covered foam columns fit into the shoes from above and secure them to the support board from the interior.

Leather shoes stored on Volara foam

3/3:These leather shoes made with straw and silk appliqué require a mount that does not come in contact with the fragile outer surface.

High boots stored in custom tray

1/2: Foam supports are fitted under the heels and at the toes to keep the boots stable and in alignment.

High boots stored in custom tray

2/2: Shaped pillows made of polyester batting and covered in cotton knit fill these high boots. The custom tray protects them from touching other objects stored in the same drawer, and the handles allow the boots to be moved easily as a pair.

High boots stored in custom tray

1/2: To store these rigid riding boots in an upright position, a padded foam block is tied between the boots with cotton twill tape to make the boots less top heavy. The foam block is covered in batting and Tyvek to ensure soft contact with the leather sidewalls of the boots.

High boots stored in custom tray

2/2: Custom polyethylene foam arches and heel stops prevent the boots from moving within the tray.

Leather shoes stored in Coroplast box

1/2: A design sketch for the construction of mount.

Leather shoes stored in Coroplast box

2/2: These leather shoes are positioned heel to toe in a storage box made of Coroplast board. Ties, rather than adhesive, secure the corners of the box, which surrounds and protects the edges of the shoes. On the bottom, a layer of Volara foam provides support, and small wedges of triangular polyethylene rod secure the shoes inside the box.

Platform shoes stored in custom box

1/3: A design sketch for the construction of mount.

Platform shoes stored in custom box

2/3: One-inch polyethylene foam covers the bed of the box, and shaped cutouts lined with Tyvek make room for the stilt bottoms to nest within.

Platform shoes stored in custom box

3/3: A custom box protects these “stilt” platform shoes made of wood and inlays from contact with other objects.

Court shoes stored in drop-front box

1/3: The drop-front box made of corrugated board has a separate mounting board that slides out. The mounting board is fitted with Volara stops to hold the sole and heel in position. A twill tie secures the toe for lifting.

Court shoes stored in drop-front box

2/3: Occasionally, covered storage boxes with custom padding are used. Soft batting and muslin pillows hold this shoe in place within the box. A similar pad fits in the interior of the shoe.

Court shoes stored in drop-front box

3/3: This type of support is ideal for shipping or local hand transport.

High-heeled sandals stored with padding

These modern shoes can be stored upright without the aid of heel stops or handling trays. Only padded inserts are needed to relieve the weight of heavy decoration on the thin leather straps and elevate the straps to prevent compression and cracking of the leather. The inserts are made from polyester batting and wrapped in polyester stockinet.

Flip flops stored with padding

The padded toe inserts for these thongs were hand-stitched to properly fit the shape of the shoe.

Explore other exhibits that highlight similar work by MFA textile conservators with gloves, handbags, fans and hats.

Credits: Story

Authors
Written by Karen Gausch and Joel Thompson.
Drawings by Karen Gausch.

Karen Gausch earned a BFA in fine art from Pratt Institute, Brooklyn, NY, in 1983 and has been working in the museum exhibition field for more than 20 years. She has worked with private and corporate collections, among them the Smithsonian’s Cooper-Hewitt Museum and PepsiCo. Her experiences in fabricating mounting systems span an array of collections, from ancient to contemporary, fine and decorative arts. Gausch joined the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, in 1995 where she became Exhibition Preparation Collections Care Manager, Objects. In 2006 she became Chief Preparator of Collections Management at the Harvard University Art Museums.

Joel Thompson received her Masters in Art Conservation from the Art Conservation Department of the State University College at Buffalo in 2000. She has worked as Exhibits Conservator at the Field Museum of Natural History and as Textile and Objects Conservator at the Chicago Historical Society. Thompson is currently Associate Conservator in the Textile Conservation Lab at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Acknowledgments
The authors would like to acknowledge the generous funding from the Institute for Museum and Library Services that made this project possible. Several individuals gave generously of their time and expertise in sharing their ideas including Chris Paulocik of the Costume Institute, Metropolitan Museum of Art, Nobuko Kajitani, Lucy Commoner of the Cooper Hewitt National Museum of Design, Glenn Peterson of the Fashion Institute of Technology, and Susan Heald of the National Museum of the American Indian. Many aspects of the prototype mount designs are not unique to the MFA, but built on the inventive work of others; the authors extend appreciation and recognition to these people. Thanks are due to Meredith Montague, Head of the Textile Conservation at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, for leading this project from inception to completion. The authors also thank Arthur Beale, former Chair of Conservation and Collections Management for his guidance, encouragement, and support of these efforts. Finally, tremendous thanks are due to the many staff members who not only brought these projects to successful completion, but also enriched the initial designs with their collective knowledge and experience. These staff members include Claudia Iannuccilli, Becky Fifield, Maryann Sadagopan, Elizabeth Hill, Allison Hewey, and Allison Sloan-Murphy.

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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