Recovered Ruby Slippers visit museum for examination by conservators, curators . . . and FBI agents

By Erin Blasco
Pair of Ruby Slippers with red sequins and bows, very sparkly but worn

Dawn Wallace and Richard Barden stood in the museum's objects conservation lab over two shoes. Red. Sequin-covered. Small heels. Petite in size. 

Wallace, an objects conservator, had recently spent more than 200 hours examining the museum's long-cherished pair of Ruby Slippers, worn by Judy Garland while filming the iconic 1939 movie The Wizard of Oz. Barden, our chief conservator, had spent decades with the museum's collections, including the sparkling shoes that will be returning to view in a new showcase display opening October 19, 2018. 

Those shoes, now fully conserved thanks to the support of 6,000 Kickstarter backers who funded their preservation, were safely stored elsewhere in the museum. The shoes that sat before Wallace and Barden had been delivered by FBI agents for examination, and could be the key to a 13-year-old mystery. 

"Wow, I think these are the real thing," Wallace thought. 

On a white background, two red shoes covered in red sequins. Each has a bow with beads. They aren't new, soles separate form body of shoe. They shine. Kitten heels.
The Ruby Slippers in the museum's collection, shown here, are one of a few pairs made for the movie. Our pair was likely worn in dance sequences. Felt on the bottom of the shoes may have muffled the sound of dancing on the Yellow Brick Road. This photo was taken after the completion of the conservation treatment.

An unexpected examination

At the FBI's request, Wallace and Barden were looking for signs that the recovered pair might be the one that went missing in 2005 while on loan to the Judy Garland Museum in Minnesota. Was this pair a masterful replica, or would evidence suggest that these shoes were worn by Garland as she worked on the film? 

Two red shoes, kitten heels, covered in red sequins. In the center, a single red sequin. And an FBI badge.
The recovered pair, along with an FBI badge. The single sequin shown here was found at the crime scene at the Judy Garland Museum, from which a pair of Ruby Slippers went missing in 2005. 

Wallace and her colleagues would spend nearly two days poring over every detail to assist the FBI in learning as much as possible about the glistening red shoes the agents had brought to the museum. 

National Museum of American History staff do not authenticate objects, but often share knowledge when asked—and, of course, relish "the opportunity to learn more about objects that are so important to American history," as Entertainment Curator Ryan Lintelman put it. Wallace and Barden were eager to use their expertise to determine if the recovered pair's materials, construction, and condition were consistent with the museum's pair.

A woman wearing a green shirt looks at a sequin-covered red shoe, using a stick-like instrument to examine in. Beside her, a microscope.
Objects Conservator Dawn Wallace examines the recovered pair of Ruby Slippers. Chief Conservator Richard Barden and Curator Ryan Lintelman also spent hours looking at the shoes in detail. 

Wallace checked every inch of the shoes. Her hours with our Ruby Slippers made her uniquely qualified to spot any minute clues the shoes may offer. The conservation work was a "sequin by sequin sequence," she likes to joke. During that process, she cleaned each sequin, realigning many to expose the silver side with more reflectance and stabilizing the shoes so that they can be on display for years to come. 

Investigating the materials and their condition, Wallace noticed many consistencies with the museum's pair. But it was a clear glass bead on the bow of the left shoe that, for her, confirmed her initial reaction.   

A clear glass clue

Wallace had also spotted clear glass beads painted red while peering through a microscope during conservation work on the museum's pair. Analysis and interviews with Hollywood costumers indicated that the painted-bead replacements were likely repairs made on-set during filming. 

Photo of a red fabric bow covered in beads with dark metal brackets. Three circles indicate where clear beads were painted red instead of using red beads.
Circles indicate the location of clear glass beads painted red on the museum's right shoe. 
Close up photo of bow of Ruby Slippers. Red fabric, yellow thread visible. Two beads are painted red. The others are red glass.
This close-up image of the bow on the museum's right shoe shows two clear beads with red paint beside two red glass beads, evidence of an on-set repair. In bottom right is information about the microscope used to capture this image. 

"To me, the glass bead painted red was a eureka moment," Wallace said. "That's a piece of information that hasn't been published anywhere and, as far as I know, isn't widely known. It's a unique element of these shoes, and spotting that bead was a defining moment." 

Extremely close-up image of the bow part of the Ruby Slippers. You can see beads held in place by metal brackets.
A clear glass bead is discovered on the bow of the left shoe of the recovered pair. It has flecks of red paint on it.

In addition to examining the shoes, Wallace worked with scientists from the Smithsonian Institution's Museum Conservation Institute (MCI) to analyze their materials using a non-destructive process. They could then compare results between the two pairs. Analysis revealed, for example, that the sequins combine layers of different materials, including cellulose nitrate and a silver backing designed to reflect light and create a sparkle. (Modern sequins have aluminum instead of silver.) 

Close up image of a sequin (extremely close) shows red covering, silver shiny stuff, and gelatin layer. Scratched and worn. Like chipped nail polish.
This is a close-up image of a sequin that came off the museum's pair of Ruby Slippers many years ago and has been saved for study. The red coating has flaked, showing the silver reflective layer and gelatin core. This combination of materials presents a preservation challenge as each material may react to light, temperature, and humidity differently—issues museum staff had to navigate while designing a sophisticated display case that would preserve the shoes in just the right environment when they return to display in October 2018.
Graphic diagram showing layers of sequins: red cellulose nitrate on top, then silver, then gelatin, then red cellulose nitrate. Like a donut with horizontal slices.
Sequins aren't so simple. This diagram shows the different layers present in each sequin of the Ruby Slippers. 

For Barden, the "aha!" moment came while examining the level of deterioration of the recovered pair's sequins. The physical and light damage is consistent with the museum's pair. To replicate this type of aging, one would have to have specialized knowledge. 

"Because of our conservation work on the Ruby Slippers, we created basically a library of information about the shoes," Wallace said. "And we were able to apply that to the pair the FBI brought here and gain more information." The MCI scientists, with Wallace and Barden, plan to publish about the project in the journal Heritage Science this fall and present their findings at conferences to help other museum professionals care for objects like these.

A second solve

The clear glass beads, painted red, offered another surprising insight that, unexpectedly, linked the museum's pair to the recovered pair. The museum's pair is not identical. The heel caps, bows, width, and overall shape do not match; the shoes were brought together from two separate sets. But in examining the recovered shoes, conservators found the left to the museum's right and the right to the museum's left. When temporarily reunited, the four shoes created two matching pairs.

Two red shoes covered in sequins. Each has a bow. Subtle differences between the two.
Subtle differences are visible between the two shoes in the museum's pair of Ruby Slippers. The heel caps, for example, aren't identical. 
Two red shoes covered in sequins with bows. Inside each shoe, you can see the hell. They have different details in the heel. One is a tear. The other is an hour glass shape.
The inner heel grips differ dramatically in shape between the two shoes in the museum's collection. The bows are also slightly different.  

It's possible the mix-up happened during preparation for the 1970 auction of items in MGM's costume closets. That's when the museum's pair was purchased—parting ways from other pairs produced for the film—and donated to the museum anonymously in 1979. Both our pair and the recovered pair have felt on the bottom for dance sequences. The Ruby Slippers used in close-ups would have been felt-free.

Two pairs of red shoes covered in red sequins.
The recovered pair on the left, the museum's pair on the right. Both are mismatched sets that were briefly reunited during examination by museum experts. 
Four red shoes covered in sequins. Lines indicate that the left and right shoes go together! These were mismatched years ago.
How do the shoes make matching pairs? The recovered left shoe goes with our right shoe and vice versa. 

A pair of shoes, a national treasure

"It was a great experience to see the recovered pair of shoes, for us at the museum," Lintelman said. "The Ruby Slippers have this unique resonance with the public—people watched this movie as kids or over the holidays. . . . It's a shared experience, an adventure story, a fairy tale."

We were honored to be able to share our knowledge, play a role in the recovery of lost history, and continue learning about The Wizard of Oz history. We look forward to our pair of Ruby Slippers returning to display on October 19, 2018.

In this video from the FBI, Lintelman and Wallace talk about why the Ruby Slippers are such a powerful symbol and how happy they were to help share their knowledge of the iconic shoes.

Erin Blasco manages the museum's blog and social media. She was thrilled to find out that the museum's Keep Them Ruby project had resulted in research that was of service to an FBI investigation and would like to thank the Kickstarter backers for being part of this incredible journey.

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Anyone with information regarding this issue is encouraged to contact the FBI.