Friday, 21 December 2012


One of my school mum friends has just written the following, I saw it on facebook and asked if she minded me putting on my blog - it SO deserves a wider audience!  Heather, this is BRILLIANT. I think you are BRILLIANT.  You should consider a career in writing!

Peace and Love

S.A.M xoxo

Firstly - who is Heather?

Heather Bennett - Heather’s academic background is in historical research, as she studied history at Roehampton prior to joining the History of Design programme at the V&A/RCA. Heather is currently research and writing her dissertation thesis on home shopping catalogues during the mid 20th century, as well as co-editing the Bodies, Dress, People & Identities column for Unmaking Things.

Here's what she wrote:

"I'm no Carrie Bradshaw when it comes to shoes; I am pretty much wed to my trusty Converse and rarely wear anything else. But there's something about shoes, something that resonates internally at the sight of an empty pair. I was reminded of this when, by accident, I stumbled across the children’s shoes cupboard at the Museum of London, where I volunteer. Upon opening the cupboard, I was greeted with row upon row of sweet little shoes, which once upon time were filled by tiny little feet. Immediately, I found myself drawn into cooing over the tiny proportions, and revelling in the nostalgia of the endearing, quintessential seaside buckle sandals, sat beside the classic red Mary Jane shoes.

Photos taken by Heather Bennett for the Museum of London

It was the chance opening of the museum's tall boots cupboard, however, that really brought home to me the way in which shoes reverberate, transmitting the echoes of the past. Inside the cupboard were rows of huge, dark, imposing boots, standing to attention formidably in a line; the largest boots I had ever seen. These enormous, arresting boots, seeming, once, to have been inhabited by giants, but are now eerily empty, left me feeling somewhat spooked.

So what is it about shoes that arouse such feelings? Historian Giorgio Riello suggests,
Of all the garments shoes are uniquely independent from the physical body. They have shape that they keep even when the wearer is absent […] shoes are ‘self-standing.’ This peculiar nature explains why they often stand for something else that is not physically present.[1]

Riello is not alone in considering how shoes have come to stand in for those who are not present in the flesh. Stephen Kelly considers this in his chapter, 'In the Sight of an Old Pair of Shoes', in relation to the Holocaust,
The empty shoe has become a signifier of the scale and human impact of Nazi crimes [...] in the endless reproduction of images of piles of shoes at Auschwitz or Birkenau. In contemporary forms of cultural memory, images of shoes accumulated by death-camp workers have come to stand, metonymically, for murdered Jews.[2]
The mounds of decaying shoes that the victims of the Holocaust were forced to abandon have come to stand in for the murdered Jews themselves, being often deployed in an attempt to demonstrate the sheer scale of lives lost, and to evoke a tangible connection between the suffering of the past with the viewer in the present. One such example of this is the permanent Holocaust Exhibition at the Imperial War Museum in London, where amongst the most haunting exhibits is a Perspex wall holding eight hundred individual shoes.

Stephen Kelly raises a very important concern regarding the use of shoes in this manner, arguing that it is reductive to use them as a stand in for the victims of the Holocaust, 'Reduced to an absence signified, paradoxically, by what remains - namely, shoes - victims of the Holocaust are again robbed of the fact and distinctiveness of their historical existence.'[3] This is a real concern in terms of the Shoah, but also in terms of reading objects for meaning more widely, where the fear is of reducing the people of the past and their experiences to being metonymically stood in for by objects.

Objects are deeply entangled in the events of people's lives and are fundamental in preserving history. Janet Hoskins's 'Biographical Objects' examines how objects can tell these life stories, which otherwise might otherwise remain hidden. She argues that people and objects are intrinsically intertwined, that objects mediate for the person and are part of telling their story.[4] But what if the person is no longer alive or able to tell their story through an object? What if those objects are the shoes of the victims of the Shoah?

One project that I believe successfully combines objects and an understanding of the experiences of people from the past is The Holocaust and The United Nations Outreach Programme, 'Footprints for Hope Project'. This programme is designed to connect teenage students with the victims of the Shoah through close examination of a single shoe. Rather than homogenising the experiences of many, or seeking to imagine a fictional person with a fictional narrative, this project is embedded in historical fact and recognises some of the limitations of object centred study.[5]
Students are asked to consider a small child’s shoe: who does the shoe belong too? How old is the shoe? How was it made? What is it made of? Is it hand made? What can we tell from the condition of the shoe? The students are then asked to consider what we do not know and what cannot be determined from the shoe, such as the name of child who owned the shoe, when they were born, what language they spoke. The only other thing known about the shoe is that it was found in Auschwitz-Berkenau and, therefore the fate faced by its owner.

Taking the shoe and the wider context of what is already known about Auschwitz, the students are then asked to picture what happened to the owner of the shoe and their journey from train to death chamber. In essence what the students are urged to do is to consider the object and the Holocaust from an object-driven perspective. They are urged to remain mindful of what we can extract as fact, what is probability, and what is purely speculation. In mapping out what we can understand about the object we can say something about who owned it, acknowledging that there was once a person who once filled the shoe. Their identity is not reduced to a shoe, rather their absence and the absence of their personal story both before their arrival Auschwitz and after is considered and acknowledged.

The experience of the unknown, absent child is not homogenised into the mass experience, rather it is acknowledged and considered with all that remains as physical evidence of their existence. In doing so, whilst limitations are recognised, there is an attempt to provide a representation of the lost, of the millions of unknown individuals who have been denied their story and which can only be in some small way partially constructed.

It is what we as design historians strive to discover from objects, we are driven by object but endeavour to uphold respectful for the people to whom their story is intrinsically intertwined with the object as we try to unravel a little piece. Careful consideration of context and treading a narrow pathway between what we know and what we seek to know. Shoes are potent objects for consideration and whilst it is difficult to exactly pinpoint as to why shoes resonate and connect with people, it is however clear that, ‘you cannot put the same shoe on every foot’ when it comes to reading history.[6]

This article was originally published on Unmaking Things, a website related to the V&A/RCA History of Design Programme 

[1] Giorgio Riello and Peter McNeil, ‘ A Long Walk, Shoes, People and Places’, in Shoes: A History from Sandals to Sneakers, ed. by Giorgio Riello and Peter McNeil (Oxford: Berg, 2001), p. 3
[2] Stephen Kelly, ‘In the Sight if an Old Pair of Shoes’, in Everyday Objects: Medieval and Early Modern Material ed by Tara Hamling and Catherine Richardson (Farnham: Ashgate Publishing, 2010), pp. 57-70 (p.63)
[3] Ibid.
[4] Janet Hoskins, Biographical Objects, (New York: Routledge, 1998), pp. 2-7
[5] Paul Salmons, ‘The Footprints for Hope Project’, The Holocaust and the United Nations Outreach Programme, United Nations (2011), [accessed 16 December 2012]
[6] Publilius Syrus, Maxim 596


  1. I have to say that this is fascinating, I had no idea shoes were so significant. i now see them in a whole different light! i loved finding out about imagining the personal stories behind the shoes and Auschvitz, how it acknowledges the absent people. It's very eery.

    You are right Soph, your friend is a brilliant writer. It's been an eye opener reading it,and my 'something new i learned today'...really, really enjoyed reading this. x have retweeted too x

  2. Thank you (and a big thank you to Sophie too), glad you liked it. Thanks for the retweet :)

  3. what a great read, thanks Sophie for posting this to your blog, those shoes found in the museum are really intrestng, and like it says in the story shoes really do lead you to think about the person that once filled them.

  4. That's so thought provoking. I always feel emotional about children's shoes and I've never really thought about why. Thanks for posting Sophie, and I'd love to read more of your writing Heather, you have a very interesting job.

  5. Interesting. I would love to explore the shoe collection of the museum. I have often thought that feet are as individual as faces and, therefore, footwear is fascinating.

  6. The shoes are amazing at the MOL, cupboard upon cupboard, some of them are to die for (and I'm really not a shoes person). The MOL are in the process of adding even more shoes to their search the collections online pages, really worth a look in the new year.

  7. Thank you, I love volunteering at the MOL, their collection has a real emphasis on the social history of London. There's definitely something really emotional about children's shoes, I've kept my kids' first shoes and it was thinking about them that was the catalyst for the article, that said I'm definitely less emotional about my teenage son's stinky trainers!

  8. There's really something in the adages that circulate around footwear, 'walk a mile in someone else's shoes' and 'the shoe is on the other foot now' I think it's fascinating too, there's just something so evocative about shoes. It is something that really translates with the Holocaust memorials, the link below has information and photos of the 'Shoes on the Danube Promenade' memorial, it's particularly poignant.
    I particularly like the UN Footprint project and their approach it specifically makes the point that we will never know the face, name and ultimately the person that filled the shoe, whilst acknowledging their absence.

  9. Heather you NEED to write a blog - you write so well!

  10. I posted because it was such a moving post. Ive always been fascinated by shoes and I've never been to the MOL. It is on my list of places to visit in 2013!


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