Head over Heels: a collaborative project
The Accessories Project was a collaborative project between the Oxfordshire County Council Museums Service, the Oxford University Museums and the Museum of Oxford that ran from June 2011-March 2012.
The key aims of the project were:
- To develop ways of working together across the various museum services involved in the project
- To provide for the conservation and documentation of a set of objects within the Oxfordshire County Council’s collection
- To survey headwear and footwear in collections across Oxfordshire
- To create an online resource for these objects
- To provide training for colleagues at museums across Oxfordshire on the care of textiles and topics relating to the exhibition process
- To create a programme of learning and engagement events around the project
- To display a community exhibition at the Museum of Oxford based on the project’s learning activities
- To display an exhibition of approximately 50 objects at the Oxfordshire Museum exploring the story of hats and shoes made and used in Oxfordshire, that will be available to tour.
Organising the Project
Managed through the Oxfordshire County Council Museums Services, colleagues from across the participating museums were asked to apply to be seconded to the project for three days a week. The aim was to both get the right people on the project while providing continuing professional development opportunities.
Aimée Payton, the Administrator for the Department of Eastern Art at the Ashmolean Museum, was appointed as Collections Access Officer. Sam van de Geer, Social History Conservator at Oxfordshire’s Museums Resources Centre was appointed as the Project Curator.
Aimée and Sam were supported by a steering group comprised of colleagues from across the participating museums holding expertise in project management, collections and interpretation, education, engagement and communications.
Beginning the Project
The project began with a survey of the hats and shoes in the County’s collections, and also in the collections of 45 museums and heritage sites across Oxfordshire. The survey involved phone calls, emails, and visits to any museums with significant objects. Some of the objects surveyed were later included in the Heritage Search database, and the team began to select about 80 objects for the exhibition at The Oxfordshire Museum.
Some objects from the exhibition can be seen on the BBC’s website.
Sam focussed on the conservation, documentation and storage of the objects in the County’s collections, pulling together the online database and organising training for colleagues across Oxfordshire.
Throughout the project several training opportunities were offered including:
- Basics of for caring for organic materials
- Investigating, dating and documenting hats, shoes and garments
- Making medieval shoes
- Mounting for storage and display
- Study day: Hats
- Study day: Shoes
Aimée focussed on researching the objects – with the help of a pool of volunteers – developing the themes of the project, working with education groups across the participating museums to engage the community with the project, and bringing together and creating the content for the exhibitions.
The development of ideas was shared throughout the project on Oxfordshire Hats and Shoes blog.
The project represented a design challenge. The team wanted thematic panels that would suit both the object exhibition and the community exhibition. The panels also needed to be flexible for the exhibition to tour to venues of different sizes.
The team elected to work with Eq=al Studio to create a series of banners suitable for the various exhibitions.
The banners were hung using a flexible metal frame which can be adjusted to fit around cases of various sizes – a must for a touring exhibition – and which the museums should be able to reuse for future exhibitions.
The main Head over Heels object exhibition opened at The Oxfordshire Museum in June 2012 and ran until September.
The displays explored five key themes.
“Our choice of clothing is very important. It shows the world whether we are rich or poor; conformist or wanting to be noticed; old fashioned or contemporary in our attitudes. Until the 1800s most people bought their hats and shoes direct from the maker. Although this practice continued, with growing mass production they became available in department stores and shoe warehouses. Changing social trends in this period saw a growth in the independent purchasing power of women. In response to this advertising began to develop a separate approach from men and women.”
“Many people keep clothes as a reminder of the past. As fashions change hoarded hats and shoes become treasured mementos never to be worn again. They can be associated with a particular period or a special occasion in a person’s life, or that of others, and carry these stories with them.”
“We are constantly trying to understand the complex and mysterious world around us. Throughout history we have used rituals and talismans to bring good luck and protect ourselves from evil and bad luck. As well as encouraging good fortune, headwear and footwear have particularly powerful protective properties.”
“Both adults and children love dressing up. The sense of escapism contrasts with the responsibilities of life. We can create all sorts of opportunities to entertain our fantasies and escape the reality of our lives. The desire to do this using clothes is played through public spectacle, theatre and dance performances. Stories are told, illusions created and dreams lives out.”
“The hats and shoes that people wear can tell us about the job they do. Foot and headwear are often used to protect the wearer from the hazards of their job. Other work clothing, particularly hats, have no practical function but may indicate the wearer’s status or role.”
The community curated exhibition opened at the Museum of Oxford in March 2012 and ran until June. The exhibition included contributions from several community groups who worked with museum learning officers.
A women’s complex needs group produced the life story of a fictional character through shoes.
Photographer Suzy Prior took photographic portraits of members of the public in the head gear that they have to wear for work. The Museum of Oxford Archaeology group selected shoe fragments excavated in the 1970s in the vicinity of the Oxford Castle, to illustrate footwear of the 14th-16th centuries. The Museum of Oxford Reminiscence group shared their memories of hats and shoes through audio clips of their stories and a display of their own headwear, footwear and photographs of the past. One member, Hazel Bleasy, contributed a miniature milliner’s shop in memory of her great grandmother.
The exhibition also included 11 fantastical shoes designed and made by a young carers group from East Oxford. One of the participating young artists wrote “I am very proud that I was part of the exhibition. It was a great success designing my sweetie shoe”. The shoe in question was decorated from tip to toe with liquorice all-sorts.
Overall the project has been considered a success with a productive collaboration resulting in two highly successful exhibitions, deep engagement with community groups, knowledge sharing with other museum professionals, and improved conservation and documentation of Oxfordshire’s hat and shoe collections. This project will form a model for future collaborative projects across Oxfordshire’s museums.