The Melness Shoe: The afterlife of a museum object

‘A museum, for most objects, is a final resting place – a moment frozen in time for future contemplation’. This statement was penned by heritage specialist Sharon Macdonald back in 2002 and it demonstrates the general consensus about museum objects. Once an object – say, a concealed shoe – is accessioned into a collection, it’s removed from its social and cultural context and becomes fixed in place. But does that mean that it’s no longer able to shift contexts, to change meaning, to influence people, and to be influenced by people? I recently interviewed an artist who has engaged with concealed shoes within museum environments, and her experience has shown me that such shoes are far from ‘frozen in time’.

Joanne B. Kaar is an artist living in Dunnet, not far from the northernmost tip of mainland UK. She’s studied Textiles at universities in Manchester, Aberdeen, and North America, and she’s primarily interested in working with museums, creating pieces of art that are inspired by objects and their stories. In 2012-13 she was an artist in residence at the volunteer-run Strathnaver Museum, and she was on the hunt for an object that would capture her imagination – and that’s when she came across the Melness shoe.

Melness Shoe

It’s an old, well-worn lady’s boot, and it was sitting amongst various miscellaneous objects at Strathnaver Museum when Joanne first came across it. She initially dismissed it as a mundane shoe – “It didn’t look anything special” – but the accompanying label piqued her curiosity. ‘Found inside the walls of a house in Melness and donated to the museum 20 years ago,’ was all it said. Intrigued, Joanne set about finding more information about it, but all the museum knew was that it had been donated in the 1970s and that it had been found built into the wall of a house alongside a dog skin buoy and an empty whiskey bottle. Why these items had been found in the wall of a house was beyond them. So Joanne contacted Northampton Shoe Museum and they identified it as a ‘concealed shoe’, probably hidden in the building to protect it from witches and evil spirits. “It became much more of a fascinating object instead of just this mundane shoe,” she explains. “This story behind it, about where it was found, suddenly made it quite special”.

As I know myself, concealed shoes tend to be quite addictive; once you find out about them, you’re immediately hungry for more information. Joanne was no different. “Because the concealed shoe was hidden in secret and not talked about, it’s quite a difficult thing to research. That made it even more of a challenge.” She wanted to know if other concealed shoes had been discovered in the local area and so she sent out feelers – but her way of ‘research dissemination’ was far more interesting than distributing leaflets or publishing articles.

She made 200 paper shoes (the design for which is free to download here). The outside of the shoe is designed as a stone wall, representing the wall in which the Melness shoe was found, while the inside includes information about the Melness shoe itself and asking people to get in touch if they’d found something similar.

7 30th May 2012 paper shoes opt

1 paper shoe design with making instructions opt

1 30th May 2012 paper shoes opt

But rather than just handing out these 3D “pamphlets” (for want of a better word) on the street, Joanne had a better idea. She concealed them. “I decided not to tell anyone where I was leaving them. I hid them in secret all along the north coast, from Balnakeil right the way to the John o’ Groats ferry.” She hid them in telephone boxes, shops, libraries, galleries, cafes, egg honesty boxes at the end of drives, not knowing if anybody would find them or if they would care.

Well, it turns out that they cared.

Lots of people got in touch. People who’d never been to Strathnaver Museum, or hadn’t been there for years, came to visit. They came to see the shoe and to tell stories of their own finds; numerous other instances of concealed shoes came to light, some of which had been discarded by their finders years ago – some of which had been kept. But the paper shoes did more than encourage people to share their finds; they became finds themselves.

People didn’t just throw them away; they kept them. And they began to be hidden away in places that probably won’t come to light for many years. Joanne’s parents placed one in a bottle, along with a note giving the date, and bricked it up in the wall of their house during renovations. Another few paper shoes went into a box and were hidden within a stone wall nearby.

opt Gavin Clark Invernaver concealing shoes 28th May 2012 7

“Nobody’s ever laughed,” Joanne notes. “Me handing them these paper shoes and people finding them, they all think it’s interesting, nobody’s thought “that’s a stupid idea, why are you bothering with that?” Everyone seems to be fascinated with it…They had their own wee theories why.”

Joanne also worked with a local school, Tongue Primary, where the pupils made their own paper shoes and were told that they could either take them home or conceal them (most chose to conceal them – “I think they used it as an excuse to go into buildings, like ruined crofts, that they wouldn’t usually go into”). They also decorated an empty shoe box, selected a few of the shoes, and sent them to Northampton Shoe Museum, where they were given accession numbers and added to the museum’s collection. A whole new class of ‘concealed shoe’.

1 shoe box Tongue Primary school opt

All of this activity because an artist in residence at a small, local museum just happened to stumble upon an old shoe with a mysterious label – a shoe that certainly hasn’t remained ‘frozen in time’. By finding it, questioning it, and sharing it, Joanne’s project has not only led to the creation of new ‘concealed shoes’ but has “added a wee bit more story” to the Melness shoe itself.

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