She walks a mile in everyone's shoes.
Ada Hopkins’ office has a long slice of glass along one wall so passers-by can peek inside and see what she’s working on. Today, tiny red silk slippers from China sit on her desk next to a gorgeous pair of hand-embroidered women’s leather shoes. A pair of yellow and purple sneakers isn’t too far away. Hopkins is the Bata Shoe Museum’s conservator, and her job is to make sure all of its footwear is kept safe for future generations.
Hopkins, 58, is a graduate of the Algonquin College diploma program in conservation. After stints in freelancing, and jobs at the Oakville Museum and the Enoch Turner Schoolhouse, Hopkins joined the Bata staff 27 years ago. “The collection is mostly shoes, but I work on items that have to do with shoe-making as well as shoes,” she explains. Hopkins also provides context for the more unusual items in the museum’s vaults. “For example, we have boots from Greenland, and we have an entire special-occasion outfit that a woman would wear, so that people who aren’t familiar with that style of clothing can better understand how the whole thing comes together.”
Our interview with Hopkins—about eroding sneakers, men in heels, and constantly learning—is below.
Torontoist: How did you get involved in conserving footwear? Were you interested in conservation and then decided to pursue shoes, or did you love shoes and decided you wanted to conserve them?
Ada Hopkins: I was interested in fashion history when I took the conservation course. When I was at the Oakville Museum, they did a fashion history exhibition and I worked on conserving and mounting the costumes in that exhibition. The Bata Shoe Museum already had a part-time conservator, and they were looking for a conservator with a textile background to work on women’s fashion footwear from the 1700s, which is primarily textile uppers. My background was primarily textile-based. I worked on that for about two years, and I learned a lot about shoes in the process. Then they were looking to hire someone full time permanently, so I got the job.
What’s the typical process when you get a shoe in?
The standard for a shoe that comes into the museum is that it’s inspected to make sure there aren’t any pest problems, like moths or, if there are wooden components, woodworm. The curator and the collections manager look at it, and it’s catalogued and given an artifact number. Then I sit down and I look at the object. I see if it has any condition issues that need to be dealt with. If it’s really detrimental to its longevity, I’ll do it immediately. If it’s minor cosmetic treatment, I’ll put it on a list for later. I apply a tracking number to the object, and I prepare it for storage. We have two storage rooms downstairs.
If we’re doing an exhibition, the curator will decide the topic, and then she’ll write the story, and see what shoes the museum has in its collection to illustrate that story. The two of us will then go through her selections and determine what needs conservation; because there’s a book, we decide what needs cosmetic intervention for the book’s photography, and if there are any serious treatment needs to be addressed before it goes on display.
What is the most technically demanding part of the job?
I think working with a three-dimensional object is quite demanding. You have to understand the materials—how to clean beads, for example, or a torn textile you’re using an adhesive film to fix, or you’re hand-stitching leather—and all those treatments are quite different. They can be in recessed areas that are hard to get at, so you have to have good manual dexterity. Sometimes, when you’re working with a three-dimensional object, you have to use both your hands, and set the object up to that it’s fully supported if the treatment is complicated in terms of accessing. Three-dimensional objects are slightly more complex to work with than, say, a work of art on paper. And that’s not to say that a work of art on paper isn’t a complex composition of materials.
I have to understand how the materials are made, and I have to understand how the object is put together. Once I know that, I have to understand the chemistry of the interaction between the materials I’m using for conservation—adhesives, chemicals, things like that—and the materials to which I’m applying them.
The underlying philosophy in conservation is that everything we do has to be reversible, in case sometime down the road, a treatment fails. That can happen. If you’re using an adhesive, say, you’re using one that’s been tested: age-tested, reversibility-tested. You want to know that the reversing process is not going to change the materials of the object on which you’ve worked. When you’re working on women’s shoes from the 1700s, they tend to be the same style, the same materials, and made the same way, so generally, the treatment is the same, so I’m quite comfortable with that. But if there’s a very rare shoe, with very fragile materials, I have to tread very carefully.
How does looking at shoes teach us different things than art, literature, or even fashion? What makes shoes special as historical or anthropological objects?
You can see changes in technology. How shoes are made changes with technology, with industrialization. You can see how people are moving around, making contact with other people, trading materials, all over the world. For instance, we have a new exhibition that just opened called “Standing Tall: The Curious History of Men in Heels.” The curator has been doing a lot of research on women’s fashion footwear and heels, and she decided to explore how heels came into Western fashion, and heels had first been used by men before they had been used by women, and how women borrowed from men, and then heels fell out of fashion for men. Several hundred years ago, it was not unfashionable for men to wear heels, but now it’s considered effeminate, although that’s in transition again. We can find stories through that.
If someone was doing your job 100 years in the future, what kind of shoes do you think they would be working on from today?
The interesting thing about contemporary footwear is a lot of it is made from many kinds of plastics, and plastics are inherently unstable. Even footwear from the 1980s or 1990s may be in poorer condition than something from the 1890s, or even the 1790s.
To give you an idea [she pulls out a pair of purple and yellow Converse Weapons], this is a pair of sneakers from the 1980s. [The upper part’s] padding is a thin plastic film applied to a padding. The fabric to which it’s directly laminated is a knit. So, the plastic itself is unstable, and the stretch knit to which it’s applied stretches and moves. The plastic film is fragile, and as the fabric underneath it moves, it creates fissures in the film. The purple film here is starting to disintegrate, and it’s delaminating from the knit substrate, and you’re getting this purple dust all over the shoe. You can see someone’s purple fingerprint next to the lace hole; they’ve picked it up by the upper, and then touched the yellow leather, and the purple dust has stuck to the oils on their finger and been transferred to the surface of the yellow leather. As this film disintegrates, it also gets sticky, and dust is stuck to its surface.
Plastics conservation has been on the radar for several decades, but as conservation scientists do research on all these materials, they hit on some ideas that they think is going to work, and over time they discover maybe that’s not the best way to go. Whereas conservation for leather has a longer history and more research behind it, conservation of plastics is very new.
What’s your favourite part of this job?
I like the constant discovery. I really do. With each exhibition, another aspect of the collection comes under the microscope, so it’s an opportunity to learn something new, and I learn new things all the time. It’s one of the things that makes the job exciting.