The conservator who is saving the Ruby Slippers' sparkle

Update: Thanks to you, our Kickstarter campaign to "Keep Them Ruby" was a success and we have the support we need to conserve and display Dorothy's Ruby Slippers. Stay tuned for updates on the project. But our journey on the yellow brick road isn't over yet. Help us conserve Scarecrow's costume from the 1939 movie so that it can join Dorothy's Ruby Slippers on display and help support a new exhibition devoted to the arts, music, sports, and entertainment. Your support will help to make this project a reality. 

In 1939 the Ruby Slippers skipped down a yellow brick road in the film The Wizard of Oz. After 80 years, the treasured shoes on display in our American Stories exhibition are showing their age. Through a Kickstarter campaign, the Ruby Slippers will undergo a meticulous conservation process to ensure they can remain on display.

Behind the sparkle, behind the ruby hue, there is a highly trained conservator performing painstaking work on the slippers to keep them ruby. Conservator Dawn Wallace spoke to us about her role in the conservation project, the importance of the slippers, and why the Kickstarter campaign is a great opportunity to be part of the shoes' journey.

Banner with white background. Text: "Keep Them Ruby: Join us on our journey to conserve an American icon." And an image of one of the Ruby Slippers.

How did you become interested in conservation?

I had always been interested in history and archaeology, but at the same time I did fine arts and enjoyed working with my hands. In college, I found that conservation gave me the opportunity to combine those skills with science. It was a way for me to combine all the different fields that interested me.

How does this particular project—conserving the Ruby Slippers—differ from others that you worked on before?

I’ve worked with a lot of historical objects, but these stand out because they are connected to a movie, a DREAM, that we all grew up with and treasured. The Ruby Slippers are singular—a cultural icon, there being no others like the pair we have. They extend beyond American culture; this movie is known worldwide and a lot of people grow up with it.

Personally, there is something about the shoes. They sparkle and have a life of their own, an aura, that when you're around them you can't help but smile constantly. Growing up and watching the movie, you have this vision of them sparkling and clicking, taking you wherever you want to go. When I work with them, I still constantly feel like I'm in this fantastic world, it's fun.

A photo cropped to the shape of a circle. It shows and extreme close-up of sequin from the Ruby Slippers, including a thread.

Are you a Wizard of Oz fan?

Yes! I’ve been a fan since I was a little girl. We watched it every year and knew all the songs. In college, my friends and I dressed up as the characters and built a car for an Art Car parade.

What is the overall goal of this conservation project?

Our plans are to perform analysis to understand how the Ruby Slippers were made, what their life has been over the past 80 years, and then build a special display case. Our overall goal is to ensure that generations to come will still be able to visit and experience the aura of the Ruby Slippers. In order to get to that future we need to understand where the slippers are now.

Why is conserving the Ruby Slippers so expensive?

This is a very good question. Yes, it is expensive to conserve the Ruby Slippers. It is a more complex and involved project than it first appears because of the nuances of the Ruby Slippers themselves.  

The slippers were made by the studio by modifying commercially purchased shoes. Costume makers dyed them red, cut a fabric netting pattern to match the shape of the shoes, sewed the sequins to pattern, and then sewed the sequins to the shoes. The bows are not part of the commercial shoes so costume makers created those too, cutting a fabric to the bow shape and then covering that with a netting that had the glass beads with brass prongs attached, and then attaching the bow to the shoes.

To conserve and preserve the slippers, we must consider each material that make up the slippers. For example, the sequins themselves are made of two different materials, a gelatin body coated with a cellulose nitrate lacquer. Steel nails hold the heel caps to the heels. Overall there are more than 12 different materials that make up the slippers and we need to understand how each material has aged over the past 80 years, their current condition, and how they interact with the environment, individually, and as the whole slipper.

During conservation, we will clean and stabilize the slipper. Stabilizing will ensure that any loose threads, separating soles, and the flaking paint of the arches are secured in their proper place with materials that can easily be reversed if necessary.

A close-up photo of the beads on the bows of the Ruby Slippers, revealing different types of thread and beads

What about the display case?

To create the right conditions to preserve the slippers while on display, we need to understand how each material interacts with changes in relative humidity, temperature, light, and even oxygen. At what relative humidity and temperature do we need to keep the slippers to slow down or perhaps stop any deterioration? What role does light play in the changes occurring in the sequins? What light spectra will be the least damaging? Are any of the materials within the slippers giving off a gas that is damaging other parts? These are some of the questions that we need to answer to determine the right conditions for the slipper’s display.

We will work with scientists from the Smithsonian's Museum Conservation Institute and scientists from outside the Smithsonian to answer these questions and more. And then we will design and build a display case that will maintain the precise environment that will best preserve the slippers. A case that controls relative humidity and temperature is expensive. And if it turns out we need to display the slippers in a case without oxygen (anoxic), it becomes even more expensive. If we need an anoxic case, then the slippers will be in an inert gas such as argon or nitrogen, and we will need to consider barometric pressure to ensure that the pressure inside and outside the display case is equal. We want this case to be efficient, sustainable, and to keep the costs as low as possible.

I hope this gives you a sense of what's involved in saving the slippers and why it's expensive. Our main goal is to conserve and preserve the slippers so that future generations can enjoy them as much as we do.

Color photo of a woman carefully handling a Ruby Slipper and placing it into a brace or mount for display.

Wouldn't you do this anyway as part of your job? Why does this project need the support of the public on Kickstarter?

We care for our objects and work to preserve them, but we don't always have the time or resources to do this type of in-depth work. This project will allow us to really delve into the research and material analysis in order for us to better understand the history of the Ruby Slippers as well as create the best environment for them for the future. With new technology, we can try to predict how they may act in the future and how we can keep them accessible to the public.

Bringing the public in gives them the opportunity to have an active role in the preservation of the Ruby Slippers. I think it gives them a better understanding of what all of us do to ensure that these objects are preserved and on display. Kickstarter also gives us a large audience to share the story of the slippers. So many people have seen the movie. Now we want to take them behind the scenes and continue the journey, so education is a big part of it.

Close-up photo of red sequined shoes with upper and sole separating

Who else on the team is working on this? What role do they play?

We will be doing the hands-on treatment for conservation. We'll also be working with scientists out at the Smithsonian's Museum Conservation Institute and other institutions. They have specialized knowledge and instrumentation to perform the analysis we need. Then we'll create a new display with exhibition designers and display-case makers. Curators and historians will work to uncover more of the history and life of the slippers. The preservation of their story goes hand in hand with the preservation of the physical materials.

Close-up photo with red sequins and thread

What is your favorite part of the movie?

I always liked the part at the very end when the characters realize they've always had what they wanted: a heart, courage, brains, to feel at home. And the skipping down the road! My mom, sister, and I would link arms and skip, just like in the movie.

Graphic including image of Ruby Slippers and Scarecrow's hat

Rebecca Seel works in the Offices of Communications and Marketing / New Media.