Smithsonian Needs Help to Restore Its Ruby Slippers

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The Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History is seeking to raise funds to help restore its ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz.” Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

Sorry, Dorothy, it’s going to take a lot more than clicking your heels.

On Monday, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History launched a fundraising campaign to restore what is widely considered its most popular artifact: a pair of ruby slippers from the film The Wizard of Oz. The institution is seeking $300,000 by November 16 through a Kickstarter campaign called “Keep Them Ruby.” More than 300 people have already pledged to donate.

Four pairs of slippers that Judy Garland wore in the 1939 film are known to have survived, plus an additional pair that the actress wore in screen tests. The Smithsonian acquired its pair in 1979 from donors whose names the institution has kept private.

“They symbolize the optimism of the American spirit,” Smithsonian curator Dwight Blocker Bowers told Newsweek in 2015. “Those ruby slippers seem to be one of the most requested items of the things that we have on display.” The museum keeps the pair in a locked case that limits their exposure to light, and it monitors them with cameras 24 hours a day, according to Bowers. The museum also has the Scarecrow’s costume and an original script from the film—which refers to the slippers as silver, not ruby, as they were in L. Frank Baum’s book from which the movie was adapted.

According to a video for the fundraising campaign, light has caused the slippers to deteriorate. “They’re really discolored. They’ve darkened. They’ve become opaque, and there’s cracking,” Richard Barden, the preservation services manager for the museum, says in the video. Without the restoration, he adds, “the slippers will slowly deteriorate, and we really don’t know how quickly they’ll go.”

The museum said the conservators will “stabilize” areas of the shoes where threads have come loose, the sole has pulled away and paint has cracked.

The Smithsonian previously enlisted the public’s help to restore the spacesuit that Neil Armstrong wore during the 1969 Apollo 11 moonwalk, which is part of its National Air and Space Museum collection. The “Reboot the Suit” campaign raised $719,000, surpassing its $500,000 goal.

For decades, no one knew what happened to the slippers. Then, in 1970, a costume department employee named Kent Warner discovered four pairs of authentic ruby slippers in MGM studio storage in 1970. He kept one pair, sold two others and gave the fourth to an auctioneer. A Memphis woman had won an additional pair in a contest in 1940.

Besides the Smithsonian pair, which was originally purchased at the 1970 MGM studio auction for $15,000, one on-screen set of ruby slippers now belongs to the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences, and another belongs to a group of investors and collectors. An anonymous buyer purchased the screen-test pair in 2011 from actress Debbie Reynolds.

A thief or thieves stole the final pair from the Judy Garland Museum in Grand Rapids, Minnesota, in 2005. Through the museum, an unnamed donor offered $1 million in 2015 for information leading to their recovery. A dive team from the local sheriff’s office searched a lake, but the pair remains missing. “After years of bringing joy and happiness to so many thousands and thousands of people by being able to see them, now to me they’re a nightmare,” Michael Shaw, who owned the stolen pair, told Newsweek in 2015.

“They’re an object of intense obsession,” Rhys Thomas, author of the 1989 book The Ruby Slippers of Oz, once told Newsweek. “The ruby slippers just command so much interest and overpower the individual who owns them.”

Or as Bowers, the Smithsonian curator, has put it: “They’re magic.”