A fascination with shoes

Editor’s note: This post is the first of three submitted by students as part of a Museum Studies class co-taught by Shari Stout, Collection Manager in the Division of Work and Industry. The class, which took place in storerooms at the National Museum of American History during the Fall 2011 semester, provided hands-on experience with issues relating to the rehousing and storage of onsite collections.

Visitors to the National Museum of American History are probably not surprised by the presence of the Star-Spangled Banner or Dorothy’s ruby slippers since these objects are easily recognizable as part of American history. Yet the objects on display at the museum are just a small part of the museum’s vast collection. I have had the incredible opportunity to view and work with some of these unseen objects as a museum intern and also as a Museum Studies graduate student at The George Washington University.

Japanese sandals from the Frank G. Carpenter Collection. This shows an example of rehousing using a custom-made box with foam divider.
Japanese sandals from the Frank G. Carpenter Collection. This shows an example of rehousing using a custom-made box with foam divider.

Museum methods and practices have evolved over time, and this includes methods for storing objects. The museum world now has a better understanding of conservation methods and this in turn has led to the creation of storage cabinets that are not only space-efficient, but also safeguard objects from potential damage and hazards (dust, light, pollutants, etc.). Rehousing can involve purchasing these higher quality storage units, creating custom-made boxes for objects, or simply reorganizing drawers and cabinets to produce additional storage space. The goal of rehousing is to create a more efficient, durable manner of storing the objects than the previous solution. Each student has identified a group of objects to rehouse. I have chosen to work with a number of objects that I first thought were out of place in the collection of an American history museum: shoes with a foreign origin—specifically, from Japan, the Philippines, and Syria.

These objects are held by the division of Work and Industry, and the presence of international shoes in a collection ranging from barbed wire patent models to early Edison light bulbs seems baffling without the proper context. The objects are part of the Frank G. Carpenter collection; researching a bit about the man who collected these shoes has shed some light on their presence in the museum’s permanent collection. While the shoes at first appear unrelated to American history, the man who collected them is most certainly part of this history.

Frank G. Carpenter
Frank G. Carpenter

Frank G. Carpenter was a photographer, author, and world traveler in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Carpenter wrote a number of geography textbooks that were used in classrooms throughout the country. The Library of Congress possesses over 5,000 photographs that illustrate Carpenter’s writings on travel and world geography. These photographs and Carpenter’s world travels played a role in the popularization of cultural anthropology and geography in early 20th century America. While Carpenter’s photographs document his travels, the collection offers a rare insight into a man who apparently was quite fascinated with shoes.

Carpenter could have collected anything from his travels, but something about shoes captured his interest. Perhaps he found that shoes were easy to store and ship back home. Or Carpenter may have collected the shoes because the variations in style and design demonstrated the differences between the many cultures he came in contact with. Or maybe he found that the use of footwear common across cultures transcends the differences in the structure and function of the shoes, making them worthy of collecting. Frank G. Carpenter’s motivation for collecting shoes throughout his travels will likely remain unknown, but why these foreign shoes are part of the museum’s collection is no longer so mysterious.

Amanda K. Browe is a Museum Studies student at The George Washington University.

Posted at 11:29 am EST in From the Collections