Stilettos and Space hoppers

Posted 13th July 2021

The re-opening of the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery will help spark Northampton’s heritage renaissance writes Laura Malpas.

I have been waiting with anticipation to write this particular article, and the day is here! Our Northamptonshire flagship museum, Northampton Museum and Art Gallery, NMAG, is reopening on 10th July after a long closure for refurbishment. NNPulse was invited for a sneak peek preview, and it’s a wow from me! 

I’m most interested in museums that have a relevance to their audience, those that display object and stories that we can all identify with. Shoes are a great example of something we can all relate to. We all wear them, buy them or need them, they reflect our jobs, fantasies or hobbies, and we might love some and hate others. We all have opinions and stories about our shoes. And of course, Northamptonshire is the ‘boot and shoe county’.

Elton John’s Pinball Wizard stilt boots

If you grew up locally, there’s a fair chance that you once experienced a school trip to the ‘Shoe Museum’. It’s recognised as the largest collection of historic shoes in the world, with international as well as national importance. Of course, NMAG has plenty of other collections of great interest, but shoes are the stars of the show. In the past, the museum cabinets were kept dark to protect from light damage, but the shoes and their labels were hard to see. If you were lucky, you might have been lent a torch to better peer into the displays, and it was easy to miss some amazing objects. But thanks to the introduction of LED lighting, we can now see the collection beautifully illuminated and displayed in imaginatively designed sparkling cabinets. 

Spice Girl style ankle boots 1990s

The showstoppers are well displayed; scarlet Kinky Boots, Queen Victoria’s wedding slippers, the elephant boot, and my husband’s favourite, the Pinball Wizard’s stilted Tommy boots. But there’s so much more, from Ancient Egyptian sandals through to the most glamorous fantasy footwear through the ages. And it’s not just shoes, but all sorts of shoe related paraphernalia, videos, and manufacturing and retail displays. My favourite element is the discussion about the importance that we place on shoes, not just as foot protection, but the emotional significance. 

The shoe galleries are fabulous, but there’s so much more to enjoy!

Everywhere has been touched by the renovations, most of the other galleries have been refreshed with new labelling and edited contents. The Art galleries are looking marvellous, opening with a spectacularly dynamic retrospective of the lifework of Northamptonshire artist Chris Fiddes. The Temporary Galleries are opening with “We Are Northampton’ a delightfully feelgood celebration of all we love about our county town. The people, their pastimes, and activities. Who knew that the iconic orange space hopper originates from Northampton manufacturer Mettoy? Well, we all do now! 

Mettoy Toy display

One of the most successful changes made at NMAG include the wonderful public spaces which will make NMAG a social hub for the town. They have come about by an imaginative combination of ancient and modern. 

The buildings which NMAG now occupy were once the Northampton County Gaol, with the oldest being built in 1792 to house male prisoners and extended by the Victorians some 50 years later to make space for the ladies. The last prisoner to be hanged there was shoemaker Thomas Chamberlain on 31st March 1874, for murdering John Newitt, a wealthy farmer from Towcester. The buildings still reveal many traces of their former purpose, but the gaol closed in 1880, and the buildings were reused for a time by The Salvation Army, and the County Council. The Borough Council opened a museum and library for the town in 1884 and extended it several times over the years. 

The current redevelopment is a very successful new atrium called The Link, which unites the two previously separate buildings. It honours the history of both, but creates an invitingly modern space, home to a spacious cafe. There’s plenty of room for visitors to the museum, and for drop-in visitors meeting friends or colleagues, who might just want a breakfast treat, seasonal light lunch or good coffee and cakes. And it’s child friendly, student friendly, and there’s outdoor seating, and Wi-Fi! 

There’s space to hire too, the large Central Hall for events and functions with sound and vision, and a 270° wall projector for great displays, and a Studio, with facilities for creative workshops.

The Link cafe

The other thing to catch my eye, is the fabulous retail. There’s the Museum Shop which sells locally produced original shoe-related gifts, souvenirs and books, and then the exciting Selling Gallery, where you can admire and purchase an eclectic variety of original and limited-edition pieces, including jewellery, sculpture, prints and other art. Local makers, artists and creators are welcome to approach the Museum if they would like a high-profile showcase of their work, as the aim is to expand the range of local products and art available to the public.

NMAG is now an institution we can all be very proud of. It’s a great weatherproof visitor attraction and enhances the prestige of our county town. So why not visit with your family and friends? There’s something for everyone, and it’s a great day out.

And it’s all available the best price, free to enter for all. 

For more information, please visit the new website