London was sunny for once, and so I decided to visit the British Museum’s Enlightenment room, which is an amazing physical space designed to evoke the acquisition and classification of knowledge. Two-story bookcases, elegant cabinets of curiosities, row upon row of things stacked up or set in long lines for visual comparison. Whether it was seashells or portrait miniatures, they all had their place, at least until the museum got too small and the objects dispersed or rearranged.
Here is something I didn’t manage to see, but wish I did: Hans Sloane’s collection of exotic shoes:
Sir Hans Sloane (1660-1753), whose collection helped to found the British Museum, acquired objects that demonstrated all aspects of the world. In collecting items relating to different peoples, however, he did not collect many costumes, probably because they were large and difficult to transport. But he did collect footwear, and his catalogue lists pairs from India, China, Japan, Turkey and elsewhere. Sloane probably collected shoes because they were small and because their varying forms illustrated very clearly the differences between cultures.
Sloane’s collection included painted wooden shoes from the Coromandel Coast of India, leather ones from Morocco, silk slippers from Japan and an espadrille from the Pyranées. Sloane either collected these himself or through his connections. For instance, Sloane’s contacts with employees of British trading companies on the Coromandel coast of India would have been the source of the shoe illustrated on the left of the picture. This wooden shoe is one of a pair, annotated in Sloane’s catalogue as ‘A shoe from Coromandel’. This type of footwear, with a single knob to slip between the toes, is very old and exists in India in many different forms and materials, both for everyday use and as ritual objects or luxury items. Some were finely executed, like this lacquered example with painted floral motifs.
Admittedly, looking for a collection of shoes in the same museum where you can see the Rosetta stone may seem anti-climactic. But what better image of the Enlightenment’s empirical study of the everyday, than those ancient flip-flops?