I adore Northampton Shoe Museum – it is a place worth visiting for both its shoe collection (2nd largest collection in the world, the largest being in Canada) and the attached art gallery is just as fine! So, this week I’m delighted to be chatting to Councillor Brandon Eldred who is not only the councillor responsible for this gorgeous place, but an avid fan of the Museum too …so, welcome Brandon, please introduce yourself:
I am Brandon Eldred, Northampton Borough Council cabinet member for community engagement. Optimising the reach and appeal of the museum service falls within my remit.
Northampton Shoe Museum is totally awesome – I was blown away when I visited – caring for the largest collection of objects charting the history of shoes in the world is a big responsibility! Your staff have oodles of enthusiasm for their job. What was the inspiration behind the creation of the Shoe Collection?
The museum staff do indeed have oodles of enthusiasm and a real pride in what they do. Northampton Museum and Art Gallery was founded on in 1865. The footwear collection was started in 1873 by Moses Philip Manfield, a Northampton shoe manufacturer, so that local workers could see specimens of boots and shoes made elsewhere in the world. Since then the collection has grown to include many examples of Northamptonshire’s shoe industry. We are still collecting today from all over the world. The collection also represents the best of British. The best of British includes current footwear manufactured in Northampton and the county, which we are immensely proud of.
What exhibition or showcase has been the most popular?
Our exhibitions appeal to a wide audience and there is always something going on to suit all tastes and interests. One of our most recent popular exhibitions was ‘If We Could Be Heroes’, which celebrated the 25th anniversary of the iconic Northampton based company Jeffery-West. Jeffery-West is creating some of the most exciting men’s footwear today, and the exhibition featured a selection of their shoes alongside quirky and beautiful objects from the museum’s social history, archaeology, geology and art collections – all chosen and arranged by the designer half of Jeffery-West, Guy West. It was a visual feast for the eyes.
I caught the Jeffery-West exhibition too and my husband started a love affair with Jeffery-West shoes ever since!! Have you got a favourite out of all the exhibitions/showcases?
I have to say I have real interest in the sports shoes. Through the generosity of external funding we have built up our sports footwear and sneaker collection over the last three years. Today we have over 800 examples, which make the Northampton sneaker collection the finest in the public domain. My particular favourites are a pair of signed David Beckham boots from early on in his career, a pair of motor racing shoes worn by Emerson Fittipaldi and the running spikes worn by Christopher Chataway. He wore these spikes when taking part in the four minute mile at Iffley Road in Oxford on 6 May 1954. The race included Chris Brasher, Roger Bannister and Chris Chataway and it was during this race that Bannister became the first athlete to break the four-minute barrier for the mile in a time of three minutes 59.4 seconds.
The facilities at the Museum are fantastic – it’s a valuable source of reference for budding shoe designers, a great place for modern shoe designers to showcase their talents, a history lesson for Northampton’s schoolchildren and it is a shrine for those who have a deep love for footwear – what do you feel is the Museum’s main purpose?
The museum’s vision is to generate and increase cultural awareness and aspiration in Northampton. Its mission is to provide the lead and be the principal focus for heritage, artistic and cultural interest for all citizens and visitors to Northampton. The overall purpose of the museum service is to provide high quality museum facilities, activities and opportunities that meet the needs of our diverse communities now and in the future. Caring for the town’s many fine collections, including the boot and shoe collection, engaging with communities through education and hosting an ever-changing array of exhibition and events are our three main drivers. We promote participation, innovation and life-long learning through the direct provision of services and by working in partnership with others. The museum is also one of Northampton’s key cultural attractions that draws visitors from far and wide
When my children were young they always wanted to look at the elephant boot whenever we visited the museum. Even now I never resist the opportunity to see it when I pop in. A boot for an elephant is quite something to see. The Elephant Boot is one of four boots made by Lotus for the British Alpine Hannibal Expedition. The expedition aimed to recreate and track Hannibal’s route during his invasion of Italy in the 3rd Century BC. Although often disputed by historians, chroniclers reported that Hannibal crossed the Alps with 37 surviving elephants to take into battle.
The British Alpine Hannibal Exhibition asked the question: Can an elephant cross the Alps? Turin Zoo was generous enough to provide the non-geological materials. Her name was Jumbo. Jumbo traveled 150 miles in 10 days from France to Susa in Italy. The result of the expedition’s experiment suggested that elephants can indeed cross the Alps. To protect Jumbo from the weather she had a canvas coat and trunk cover and made and a set of canvas and leather boots to protect her feet. These boots were made by craftsmen at Lotus Ltd using the patterns supplied. To find out the size of her feet the elephant stood on a large sheet of paper and someone drew round her feet. Unfortunately Jumbo was unable to finish the last eight kilometres of the expedition, as the track was considered unsafe.
Is there any footwear missing from the Shoe Collection that the Museum would love to add?
The shoe collection is extensive and consists of:
- Footwear – more than 12,000 items ranging from ancient Egyptian to contemporary design
- Accessories – including buckles, laces, shoe horns, trees, spats, leggings and polish
- Shoemaking tools, machines and components – including lasts
- Retail trade material – including shop furniture, fittings and advertising material
- Archive material – including trade journals, company catalogues, books and photographs
- Fine and decorative art – including paintings and prints depicting shoes and shoemaking
- Index of shoemakers and shoemaking firms – from the Roman period onwards
- Index of concealed shoes – hidden in buildings to bring good luck
- Specialist reference library
As you can see the collection is really extensive, but having spoken to the museum staff, I can tell you that we still have gaps we would like to fill. We are particularly keen to hear from anyone who would like to gift or donate the following:
- Shoes with stories – shoes that you worked in, met the love of your life in, wore on a holiday or took part in an extraordinary challenge in. The shoes might reflect exceptional or everyday stories
- Designer shoes – in particular Vivienne Westwood, Gucci, Chanel, Alexander McQueen, Jimmy Choo, Roger Vivier, André Courrèges or early Salvatore Ferragamo
- Celebrity shoes – shoes that have belonged to famous or significant people
- Shoe catalogues, non-designer contemporary footwear, footwear from South America and items relating to shoe retail
Are the shoes/footwear donations or are they bought for the purpose of adding to the shoe collection or a bit of both?
We acquire items in many different ways, including donations, purchases and bequests. Not a week goes by without a member of the public bringing something into the museum or contacting us to offer an item or items for the shoe collection. We have also benefited from the generosity of local shoe manufacturers and national designers in donating examples of their current designs. Recent donations include footwear from Jeffery-West, Hotter and Prada.
We have a varied and interesting choice of future exhibitions for visitors to come and see this year. Our main gallery and shoe lounge are devoted to showcasing an ever-changing array of shoe exhibitions. We have an exciting exhibition on at the moment that features Norman Walsh English Sports Footwear. Norman Walsh started out as an apprentice shoemaker in 1945 for J.W Foster & Sons. His outstanding shoemaking skills were soon recognised and he made the running spikes for the British Athletics team at the 1948 London Olympics including those worn by the winner of the 100m Alistair McCorquedale. In 1961 Norman founded the Walsh business on his own and became a specialist in making footwear for Rugby League and fell running. Coming up in July we have an exhibition on Mod culture that explores all things Mod – the history, music and style. The exhibition ties neatly in with a concert by Paul Weller in July staged in the beautiful grounds of Delapre Abbey in Northampton. In October we will be presenting Strictly Northampton, which will look at all things dance orientated in the town.
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Thank you for the interesting insight into the Museum … I can’t wait to revisit very soon!!!