Second year student on the V&A/RCA History of Design MA, Joanne Pilcher takes us behind the scenes of the installation of the exhibition ‘Shoes Pleasure and Pain’.
Recently Gallery 40 in the Victoria and Albert Museum has been a hubbub of activity as we have prepared for and installed everything for the exhibition ‘Shoes: Pleasure and Pain’ which recently opened. As a volunteer, I have been working on the project for about a year and a half, so it has been really exciting to see everything ‘falling into place’.
Some of the many display case plans, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
I have learnt a great deal from working on this project; commencing with the amount of thought and preparation that goes into the actual placing of shoes in each of their final display locations. There was the extensive process of selecting and then eliminating shoes from the show. These decisions where informed by which shoes connected with the themes of each of the different displays and which appeared to be the most aesthetically interesting. When the final list of objects was confirmed and the exhibition space was designed, I was requested to print out small thumbnails of each of the shoes. These were then placed on the exhibition plans so they could be arranged and rearranged in order to identify which shoes looked good together or informed the narrative of the display.
Installing ‘Supply and Demand’ case, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
For example, there is a section discussing the differing levels of shoe production from those made on mass to shoes made for a specific person. A collection of ‘mass-produced’ 19th century Chinese Lotus shoes for bound feet have been placed next to a pair of brogues made by Grenson. As well as contrasting the modes of production by placing these together, there is also a clear contrast in size between the tiny lotus shoes and brogues. This difference in size created a challenge when installing the objects, as we had to ensure that nothing was ‘lost’ behind other items. This meant that the collection of lotus shoes were placed at almost every angle possible before we found their perfect final location. It is fascinating what a difference turning a shoe forty-five degrees can make to a composition.
The shoes in their final location, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
The upstairs area of the exhibition space looks stunning. In addition to information on the different processes behind making shoes, there is a section dedicated to people who collect them. Three shoe collectors were invited to select ten pairs of shoes that they thought best illustrated their persona. These are really interesting as it shows just how varied the shoe collectors’ tastes and motivations can be. One can learn a lot about a person from the shoes they buy or wear!
The ten pairs of shoes Valeria selected to represent her, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
An awarding element of observing the exhibition being installed was seeing how the shoes work within the space. When a pair of bright yellow Manolo Blahnik heels were installed within the display, the blue of the case made the yellow of the shoes vibrantly ‘pop’ beautifully. It was just one of the many instances that demonstrated how objects cannot be understood merely through photographic reproductions; seeing them ‘in the flesh’ is an important and a very different experience. I have really valued my time volunteering and hope that everyone who visits the exhibition will enjoy seeing it as much as I have enjoyed assisting with the preparation.
Manolo Blahnik ‘Tendora’ heels, © Victoria and Albert Museum, London
Blog post by Joanne Pilcher