Sneakers, relevance and 5 questions for a museum curator

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Image by Ron Wood via American Federation of Arts/Bata Shoe Museum. Nike. Air Jordan I, 1985. Nike Archives.

Here at Cuseum, we think a lot about relevance and the future of museums. We’re constantly on the lookout for examples of museums using new technology, creating exhibits to attract younger patrons, or finding other ways to enhance the visitor experience.

We care deeply about this topic, as does the museum community, which has done a great deal of research and shared numerous perspectives on relevance.

Museum 2.0 recently published its fifth post in a series called “Meditations on Relevance.” Nina Simon, of Museum 2.0, writes that relevance is determined by context. For example, something may be relevant because it’s a pop culture phenomenon. It may be relevant because it’s useful to us professionally or interests us personally. But cultural institutions, she writes, matter more to people when they’re useful and interesting, not because pop culture demands it.

That may be a good general rule, but it got us thinking. Why couldn’t pop culture, professional usefulness, and personal interests help determine if something is relevant for museum-goers?

When we discovered “The Rise of Sneaker Culture” we assumed it was designed for a millennial audience. The exhibit, currently showing at Brooklyn Museum, features about 150 pairs of shoes, some from as far back as the late 1800s. In addition to the collection, the exhibit explores the intersection of the shoe industry with the NBA and hip-hop culture when sneakers evolved from utility to fashion accessory in the mid-1980s, which is what caught our attention. Think Air Jordans and Adidas and Run-D.M.C.

While culturally significant then and now (pop culture relevance), that footwear inspired fashion designers, (professional relevance) and still has special meaning for many people (personal relevance).

We wanted to find out if our hunch about millennials was true so we reached out to Elizabeth Semmelhack, who curated the original exhibit, “Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture” in 2013 for Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto and its expanded version now at Brooklyn Museum. The exhibit at Brooklyn Museum is organized by the American Federation of Arts in partnership with the Bata Shoe Museum.

And we had a few other questions for Ms. Semmelhack, who is the museum’s senior curator.

Cuseum (C ): What caught our attention about The Rise of Sneaker Culture was that we thought it would appeal to a younger audience. Was that a consideration of yours when you created the exhibit?

Elizabeth Semmelhack (ES): As a shoe historian, the growing importance of sneaker culture has fascinated me. Many people seemed to think that because I worked on shoes my focus was on women and femininity. I wanted to turn that around by considering sneaker culture and the construction of masculinity. I knew that a sneaker culture exhibition would engage a younger demographic but my real focus was on curating a nuanced exhibition that dealt with the long and fascinating history of the sneaker.

C: If relevance to a younger audience is a consideration of yours, when did that start happening and why do you think it occurred?

ES: What I think about most is making exhibitions that will be insightful and have wide appeal. I do, however, think museums spend a great deal of effort trying to connect with younger children, their families and older adults. Teens and young adults are usually not considered to be a major part of the museum-going demographic, but I actually think that that is changing. Social media is one way in which information about a new exhibition is successfully being disseminated.  

C: Should curators consider technology and interactive elements in every exhibit they create? If so, why?

ES: In my opinion, museums are places of education. Conveying information can be done in myriad ways, which include technology but the key is to encourage the visitor to both learn and see the objects in the museum. Technology must aid rather than stand in the way of this. The experience with technology in a gallery should be markedly different from say a simple Google search that can be done at home.  

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Image by Jonathan Dorado via Brooklyn Museum. “The Rise of Sneaker Culture” exhibit.

C: You used several TVs, projectors and tablets to display information in “The Rise of Sneaker Culture” in addition to traditional displays. Is that common among your exhibitions and if so, why?

ES: The original version of the exhibition, which was here at the Bata Shoe Museum in 2013, made use of large screen images as well as touchscreens to offer more in-depth information. The amount of information was substantial, but the touchscreens presented a number of challenges. Firstly, people young and old were afraid to touch the screens despite signage encouraging them to do so and more importantly, it created bottlenecks. Only one visitor at a time could use the screens—ultimately it was an ineffectual way of conveying important information to the majority of visitors for this reason. Now, throughout the Bata Shoe Museum we now use audio guides that can be accessed when visitors download our mobile app. It has text, audio, video and images. Our exhibitions continue to make use of large screens to convey information but detailed discussions and in-depth information supplementing the text in the galleries is available on the mobile app.

C: This exhibit featured an interactive element asking people to write down their place in sneaker culture. How often do you incorporate interactive elements and why do you include them?

ES: This feature was specific to the Brooklyn museum installation and was an easy low tech way to engage visitors. At the Bata Shoe Museum we also frequently ask visitors to share their “shoe stories.” We are currently working on a mapping project that allows people to share their shoe stories from around the globe.

“The Rise of Sneaker Culture” is on display at Brooklyn Museum until Oct. 4.

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