Conservation of Blumenhof Shoes
Over the course of four summers (2008, 2009, 2011, and 2012), Mennonite Heritage Village (MHV), under the leadership of its former curator, Dr. Roland Sawatzky, partnered with the University of Winnipeg on an archaeology project at the sites of the remains of two housebarns built in the 1870s in the former Mennonite village of Blumenhof, three miles north of Steinbach. One of the housebarn sites belonged to Cornelius S. and Sarah Plett and was inhabited by three generations of Pletts before it was abandoned and the land turned into farmland in 1906. The project unearthed many valuable fragments, and sometimes whole objects, that are useful in investigating the everyday lives of this family. However, one of the most intriguing finds was a cache of dozens of individual pieces of footwear, ranging from boots to shoes in adult’s to children’s sizes, 1.5 metres below the surface of the earth in what was once the cellar of the house. The reasons behind this cache of footwear remain a mystery.
While the clay in the soil worked to protect these objects for the hundred plus years they were embedded in the earth, once they were removed, the shoes needed extensive professional conservation in order to preserve them. MHV approached Canadian Conservation Institute (CCI), who generously agreed to take on the project of conservation work on sixty-seven shoes in autumn of 2012. This project allows CCI interns to gain valuable work experience doing complex conservation treatments on archeological artifacts in a variety of mediums, since the shoes have felt, wool, linen, and rubber materials associated with them. In turn, this partnership allows MHV to receive professional conservation on these valuable artifacts.
Each piece of footwear goes through a series of steps in the complete process of conservation. First, a condition report is written and “before” photographs are taken to document the condition of the piece before it receives treatment. Next, the shoe is cleaned in a bath to remove dirt and re-gain some flexibility in the material. Third, the shoe is soaked in a solution of water and polyethylene (PEG) for a few days. This solution will penetrate the cells in the leather and prevent further damage when the shoe is later dried. After this step, the shoe is removed from the solution, frozen, and then placed in a vacuum-freeze dryer. This is preferable to air-drying because it dries the shoe in a way that causes less stress and potential damage to the material. After the shoe is dry, it is brushed and vacuumed to remove any remaining dirt, stabilized and consolidated with a solvent-based adhesive, and then, where possible, re-shaped with ethanol and water. After the shoe has been cared for in this way, a custom-made mount is constructed that will provide it with extra support. The final step in this lengthy process is to document the final product with full photographs and then to package each shoe in custom-made packaging to protect it during transit from Ottawa back to MHV.
To date, CCI has completed this treatment on twenty-four shoes and cleaned and freeze-dried twenty-seven others. Sixteen shoes are still in the beginning stages of this extensive conservation process. Once this process is completed, the shoes will be sent back to MHV where they will join the other more than 16,000 artifacts in the museum’s collection. Objects like these shoes allow us to explore the everyday life of Russian Mennonites like the Pletts, who were living in Manitoba around the turn of the twentieth century.
These shoes, and the other artifacts found over the course of this multi-year archeological project, have been graciously loaned to MHV by Royden and Mary Ann Loewen, who provided permission for the project to take place on their property. We are grateful for their trust in allowing MHV to be the caretakers of these items. We would also like to thank CCI for the extensive work they are continuing to do with this unique collection.
For more information on the CCI treatments and to read a blog by Alyson Tang, an intern in their archeology lab, on her work with these artifacts, visit CCI’s Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/cci.conservation.