Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Montreal: Museum Shoes

I didn't spend a lot of time in museums while I was in Montreal, but the two I saw were near the McGill University campus: the quaint Redpath Museum and the larger, more contemporary McCord.

The Redpath is a glimpse into the world of 19th century imperialist collecting. It's focused on natural history, so there are skeletons, taxidermied animals, and glass cases with beautiful woodwork, all filled with things that seemed exotic to the dominant culture of Montreal a hundred or so years ago.

The McCord, on the other hand, is a social history museum of the city and Canada in general. While it was founded around the same time as the Redpath, and also began from a particular person's collection, it hasn't stood still. I will probably have at least one more post on what I saw at the McCord.

For today, though, I just want to talk about shoes as I saw them at these two museums.

In keeping with its other-focused collection, the Redpath had a case devoted to Chinese foot-binding and the shoes that went with it. It started with this piece, and an accompanying description of the "anatomy of foot binding":

In 1874, J.G. Kerr took a cast from the foot of a 15-year-old girl in China to produce this model. Foot binding usually began between the ages of 5 and 8. It involved curling back all toes except on, under the foot, and pushing the front of the foot backwards toward the heel with tight bandages. It was a painful procedure that took several years and often severely reduced women’s mobility.
There were several pairs of tiny, adult-size shoes on display, but these pink silk ones from the late 19th or early 20th century represented the collection the best, I thought:

The accompanying text explains,
Perfect bound feet were no more than 3” long. The small feet prevailed as an ideal of female beauty and eroticism in Chinese society between the 10th and early 20th centuries and were compared to a golden lotus.
Contrast that with a nearby Mao slipper in the display from the mid-20th century, made of cotton and rubber:

I had a pair of these shoes about 30 years ago. It's funny that no one in the U.S. would consider wearing them now, and we've got our own form of prescribed female foot torture with 6" spike heels, even for women who visit hurricane disaster areas.

Over at the McCord, I saw several pairs of moccasins in an exhibit called Wearing Our Identity: First Peoples Collection. They were created around the same time as the pink silk shoes from China:

This pair is from the Niitsitapi people, 1890-1915. As the accompanying card puts it,
Red ochre was rubbed into the hide, indicating they had a ritual function and may have belonged to an important leader or shaman. The designs can be interpreted in many ways. The circle is sacred, representing the belief the Creator caused all things in nature to be a continuous cycle. Life mirrors the cycling of the seasons, the daily rising of the sun and the phases of the moon. The beaded discs may also symbolize hailstones, a reference to the power transmitted by thunder.
The second pair are from the Tlingit people and were created between 1875 and 1930:

These also belonged to a shaman. They are made from sealskin, with images of otherworldly helpers. Because shamans were "mediators between the community and the spirit world," they wore unique clothing, which be familiar from many other religious traditions.

The two museums are quite a contrast, and this small glimpse illustrates the way the McCord has kept its collection current with, and respectful of, Canada's various cultures, while the Redpath seems to be comfortable existing as a meta statement: the museum is itself a museum piece about imperialist collecting and viewing cultural variation as otherness, rather than part of a human whole.

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