A few days ago, it came to my attention that the Smithsonian was raising money to keep one of their most visited and prized artifacts from deteriorating further than it already has.
The ruby slippers housed at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History, one of 5 pairs worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz (1939), are now nearly 80 years old and have begun to show their age. Sequins are falling off, the signature color is fading, and the threads on the shoes are beginning to break–all signs indicative of standard costuming practices at the large studios in the 1930s.
In the days of the studio system, costumes were made not to stand the test of time, but to provide the bare minimum of was needed for a movie at the smallest cost possible to the studio. The material was the cheapest that could do the job, and with the lack of foresight into the era of television rebroadcasts and lasting celebrity, the studio executives saw no need to account for preservation. Saving money and maximizing a film’s profit was their first and foremost concern. When a movie was over, the costumes were just filed away into the studio’s storage–sometimes to be re-used for another movie, sometimes to collect dust.
In relatively recent years, movie costumes that have survived have become a source of fascination for filmgoers and collectors, if not for studio personnel. When MGM liquidated its costume storage inventory at an auction in 1970 to expand space on their soundstages, former MGM star Debbie Reynolds spent nearly $600,000 rescuing what she considered to be living history. “They literally threw away our history and I just got caught up in it,” she later said in an interview with The Hollywood Reporter. “The stupidity and the lack of foresight to save our history. Oh yes, they gave them away if you came up and said that you have something you had to offer. It was no matter about the history.”
But at the National Museum of American History, preserving costumes and props is considered synonymous with preserving the cultural past of the United States. When visitors walk into the museum and make their way to the second floor, they can see the original Kermit the Frog, Archie Bunker’s living room set from All in the Family…and the ruby slippers from The Wizard of Oz. These are all visible and identifiable parts of American heritage, and the Smithsonian treats them with the same respect and care that they take with Lincoln’s shawl and the flag that inspired the national anthem.
With that in mind, the curators jumped into action when it became clear that the ruby slippers would need further attention to keep from deteriorating further. Being a modern museum that relies on both federal funds and the public, they decided to go to the grassroots level to fund the slippers’ care–with a Kickstarter campaign to meet the restoration goal of $300,000. In a matter of hours, their initial goal was well on its way to being met.
The money will go toward a special case for the slippers, which would contain a non-oxygen gas and a meter that would measure barometric pressure that can be adjusted according to conditions. The curators would need to determine the correct amount of light and humidity that the slippers can receive, and design the case accordingly. The idea is not to refurbish them, but instead to maintain their state as they are now. To prevent further loss of paint and sequins, the slippers will be treated with a special coating. “While the slippers undergo treatment their appearance will not change drastically, and we don’t want them to,” reads the Kickstarter summary.
This undertaking is staggeringly expensive and the Smithsonian still needs our help in order to finance the preservation that the curators have deemed necessary. As of this evening, the donations have reached $225,000.
Please visit the Kickstarter campaign site and consider donating. Any small amount is greatly appreciated by the museum. Some of my favorite perks of donating:
-$1 or more: Smithsonian offers its grateful thanks and sends exclusive updates on the project.
-$10 or more: A beautiful digital poster created especially for the project.
-$50 or more: A tote bag created especially for the project.
-$150 or more: A Smithsonian Museum membership.
And if you REALLY have a bit of money to spare…
-$1,000 or more: Lunch and tour with a curator
-$7,000 or more: Your own pair of replica ruby slippers
-$10,000 or more: Watch the restoration as it’s being done.
As many of my regular readers know, The Wizard of Oz is very important to me, as it was Judy Garland who started me on my path toward classic movies. I ultimately have her to thank for much of what I have become, what I have done here on the blog and with my Marion Davies work. I feel a special obligation to pay it forward and make sure that the ruby slippers are protected–not only to preserve the legacy of Judy Garland and The Wizard of Oz, but to preserve for future generations a tangible example of the American experience–the movies that make us who we are.