Originally on view at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto between March 2006 and October 2007, Watched by Heaven, Tied to Earth: Summoning Animal Protection for Chinese Children, explored animal power in Chinese footwear and costume.
The highly-acclaimed exhibition featured over 200 beautifully crafted Chinese children’s shoes and garments, drawn largely from the private collection of Mr. Glenn Roberts, other private collections and from the Bata Shoe Museum, with the majority of pieces never before displayed in Canada. The exhibition explored the many meanings and symbolism that Chinese mothers and grandmothers used to protect their precious children. The abundance of colours and textures drew visitors into a playful world ruled by sewn, painted, appliquéd and embroidered animals.
For more than 3,000 years, animals helped to define Chinese political, social and personal identity. Associated with the directions, the seasons, time of life, heavenly bodies, the years of the zodiac, gods and heroes of legends, animals were part of a rich symbolic language that conveyed wishes for happiness, good fortune, and protection for all members of the family, especially children.
During the first critical years of life, Chinese mothers, grandmothers and aunts traditionally dressed children in shoes and clothes that imitated the hides of especially powerful animals. These garments, decorated with bared fangs and teeth to intimidate evil spirits and with long whiskers to symbolically tie children’s lives to earth symbolized animal protection.
Through an astonishing array of shoes, hats, bibs and accessories dating from the mid-nineteenth century to the present, the exhibition explored these long-standing traditions and beliefs, which continue to resonate in China. These objects offered visitors insight into one of the world’s oldest continuing cultures.
Designed as a traditional Chinese courtyard, the gallery welcomed visitors with two of the most frequently used protectors: the tiger and the dragon. Representing yin and yang respectively, these animals helped to ward off evil by invoking Heaven’s watchful eye. Dragon and tiger booties for infants and tiger shoes for toddlers were the most popular animal garments worn by Chinese children, helping protect their tiny lives by bringing yin and yang into balance.
The Chinese zodiac was another element which played largely in the lives of children and on their clothing. Based on the year of one’s birth, the 12 signs represented a variety of personality characteristics and influences that determined one’s fortunes. Shoes, hats, bonnets, bibs and pocket purses for infants and toddlers bearing images of the 12 zodiac animals were the central feature of the exhibition. Arrayed in sequence by birth year, these objects illuminated the traits and destinies of their owners.
Glenn Roberts, who generously loaned the majority of pieces in the exhibition, wanted visitors to first and foremost enjoy the artifacts. “They are charming examples that make you giggle,” said Roberts, “but they are more than that.” Roberts continued, “I wanted the visitor to look at the artifacts and not only enjoy them but also try to understand how the Chinese used symbolism and imagery to depict wishes and beliefs for their children.”
Augmenting the displays of artifacts were photographs, paper cuts and a video illustrating how shoes and garments were made and worn. A children’s activity area featured Chinese masks, puppets, games and animal picture books.
About the Bata Shoe Museum
The Bata Shoe Museum is dedicated to uncovering the role of footwear in the social and cultural life of humanity. The Museum’s growing international collection of over 13,000 objects touches on 4,500 years of history. A varied program of events and exhibitions lets visitors discover the stories behind footwear from many lands and cultures. The Bata Shoe Museum is located in downtown Toronto at 327 Bloor Street West, at the southwest corner of Bloor and St. George Streets.
Major Exhibition Lender – Glenn Roberts, New York
Described in the media as a “collector with a wonderful eye for underappreciated Chinese folk art,” Glenn Roberts has always been fascinated with what people wear and why. A collector since childhood—he was initially intrigued by the various Native American Indian tribes and how each group was unique in terms of colour and dress—his fascination with different cultures led him to build one of the world’s largest collections of Chinese lotus shoes.
A fashion and beauty industry expert for over 30 years, Mr. Roberts began his career first as a designer for a variety of fashion houses, and later as the creative director and public relations spokesperson for Elizabeth Arden. A beauty and fashion consultant for a former popular television program, Toronto Today, he has also produced numerous editorials for Canadian magazines such as Chatelaine.
Many of Mr. Roberts’ artifacts have been exhibited at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the American Museum of Natural History, the Fashion Institute of Technology Museum, the China Institute Gallery as well as smaller museums. Mr. Roberts was not only a collector, but was also a researcher, exhibitor and consultant to other collectors and museums.
Glenn Roberts past away on 07 May 2009 in New York City. The collection that he and Judy, his wife of 40 years, collaborator and partner, continues as an invaluable resource for scholars, students and others interested in Chinese culture.
Lead Curator – John E. Vollmer, New York
John E. Vollmer is a distinguished curator and scholar known internationally for his exhibitions and publications in the fields of Asian textiles and costume, decorative arts and design. President of Vollmer Cultural Consultants Inc., he directs major projects with museums, private collectors and advises auction houses in North America, Asia and Australia. Vollmer has served as director and senior curator in museums, universities and cultural agencies in Canada and the United States.
Educated at Columbia University (BA), Harvard and the University of Toronto (MA), John Vollmer has held senior curatorial appointments at the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto, and at the Glenbow Alberta Museum, Calgary. He served as director at the Kent State University Museum, Kent, Ohio and was the founding executive director of the Design Exchange in Toronto. He also teaches and has held appointments at universities including the University of Toronto, the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, Dortmund University and Fu Jen Catholic University in Taipei.
Vollmer’s Museum projects include:
Textile Galleries, Southern Branch, National Palace Museum, Taipei, Opened 2008
Patricia Harris Textile and Costume Gallery, Royal Ontario Museum, Opened 2006
Watched by Heaven, Tied to Earth: Summoning Animal Protection in Chinese Children, Bata Shoe Museum, Opened 2006
Vollmer’s publications on imperial Chinese costume and textiles include:
Emblems of Empire: Selections from the MacTaggart Art Collection, Edmonton, University of Alberta Press, 2009
Dressed to Rule: 18th Century Court Attire in the Mactaggart Collection, Edmonton, University of Alberta Press, 2007
Ruling from the Dragon Throne Costume of the Qing Dynasty (1644–1911), Berkeley, Ten Speed Press, 2003
Watched by Heaven Gallery, 2009, Bata Shoe Museum> Photograph by Victor Yeung