Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto celebrates the diversity of footwear in the history of humankind

Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto

Whether you are a shoe junkie or a history buff, this is a place that will stop you in your tracks. The Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto is the largest museum in the world entirely dedicated to the culture, traditions and styles of footwear.

Created in 1995 by the family of the Czech-born shoe mogul Thomas Bata, the museum exhibits every kind of shoe made by man in different parts of the world over the centuries -  from Egyptian footwear dating back 4,500 years to huge size 56 basketball shoes from giant Shaquille O'Neal.

Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto | Photo: Jan Kaliba,  Czech Radio

Most of the exhibits come from the private collection of Sonja Bata, President of the Bata Shoe Museum Foundation and wife of Thomas J. Bata, President of the Bata company and son of the founder Thomas Bata.

The museum, designed by architect Raymond Moriyama, is located in the heart of the Canadian metropolis and is visited annually by over 100,000 visitors from all over the world.

In addition to a permanent exhibition, it offers three temporary exhibitions which are dedicated to showcasing different themes.

Czech Radio’s Jan Kaliba spoke to the museum’s director Elizabeth Semmelhack about its history and what it has to offer.

Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto | Photo: Jan Kaliba,  Czech Radio

“When Mrs. Bata married Mr. Bata she wanted to be an active part of the company and she began to travel around the world with him. On her travels she made a very astute observation, which is that people’s feet are basically the same no matter where you go but what they have put on their feet traditionally is incredibly different. So what can studying that difference tell us about culture? It reveals things like gender expression, status expression, the materials available in a given place and the different climates where people live. So the mission of this museum is to tell the history of humanity through footwear.  We use shoes as an entry point into these larger cultural contexts.”

So the first collection was mainly Bata shoes and then it broadened?

Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto | Photo: Jan Kaliba,  Czech Radio

“No, we do have a few historic pieces of Bata shoes, but Mrs. Bata really started by collecting footwear from the places where Bata first had their companies. At first she had an idea – and it ended up not working – that if she started collecting indigenous footwear from the countries where Bata was producing shoes she could give these examples to Bata designers and they could maybe incorporate a little local flavor into the Bata shoes they were designing. However, the reason that Bata was doing so well, in India for example, was that they didn’t want footwear that referenced their own culture. They were interested in shoes that looked “Western” –they wanted the traditional Bata shoe, and so she ended up with this core collection of footwear from around the world and then the collecting bug bit her, her curiosity grew and she started collecting fully with a focus on footwear from around the world. The collection now has 15,000 artefacts -the oldest piece is 4,500 years old and the most contemporary is an NFT sneaker.”

Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto | Photo: Jan Kaliba,  Czech Radio

It is fascinating that you have shoes worn by famous people, you have native footwear. How do you select which shoes you want to exhibit and which not and how difficult is it to get Renaissance footwear or the shoes of famous personalities?

“Impossible! (laughs) That is a really difficult question to answer. When Mrs. Bata started collecting, nobody was collecting shoes. Now many museums are collecting shoes. Many collectors are collecting shoes. People not only weren’t collecting, but they were also unaware of the fact that anyone else did, so I am positive that there were Renaissance shoes and such in attics which got thrown away because nobody understood that somebody might want them.

Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto | Photo: Jan Kaliba,  Czech Radio

“So the artefacts were collected in a variety of ways. Some Mrs. Bata picked up on her travels, and once the museum was established people started offering us shoes as well. And we also have to keep our eyes open all the time. Imagine if this was a museum of Rembrandt’s work. Anytime there was an auction of his work I would be studying the catalogue and trying to bid. But there are no shoe auctions, so we have to keep our eyes open in all the different places where shoes could show up.

“For example we acquired Napoleon’s socks from a documents auction. His doctor had written documents of Napoleon’s and it turned out he had taken a pair of his socks as a souvenir. So we acquired them through a document auction. Sometimes we get them via donations. I have an exhibition up now called Future Now and was able to work with some of the top innovate designers today who donated to the museum.

Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto | Photo: Jan Kaliba,  Czech Radio

“So we can buy shoes, we get donations, we can buy at auctions, private donors, and private sales –those are the ways that we collect. But the question is also- what to collect? Footwear runs the gamut from pieces that are almost works of art (but we are not an art museum) to pieces that everybody wears. I feel that we currently have the space to collect both –the icons of culture that everybody has and the incredibly exclusive rare shoe that opens our eyes to the possibilities of technique and beauty in shoes.”

And what can you tell us about the museum building?

Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto | Photo: Jan Kaliba,  Czech Radio

“Before Mrs. Bata married, her aspiration was to be an architect. She never ceased loving architecture and design and so when the time came to build a museum she turned to one of Canada’s  most famous architects Raymond Moriyama. He was intrigued by the idea. She told him that what she wanted was a gem of a museum and he decided to be inspired by a shoe-box. The shape of the building is supposed to reference the idea of a shoe-box with its lid slightly askew, encouraging you to peek in and see what’s in the shoe-box.

“One of the delights of working in a specially designed museum for shoes is that we have this incredible light-filled atrium which greets the visitor. But then in the actual exhibition spaces there are these blank boxes that we can do anything we want with and so we are able to change the entire look of an exhibition whenever we have something new - and that’s a real blessing!”

Can you mention some of the current highlights?

“We have a temporary exhibition called “Future Now” –virtual sneakers to cutting-edge kicks. What I wanted to do in that exhibition –because I am a historian – is to ask what are designers and fabricators making now that is going to change the future of footwear. So the exhibition looks at footwear in the virtual realm, augmented reality in footwear, there’s a section that looks at innovation – like 3D printing or robot factory made footwear or footwear made from new innovative materials. Another section looks at sustainability and there we have new processes that are about preserving the environment –including mushroom leather. Mushroom leather is going to change the world –it is a very exciting material.

Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto | Photo: Jan Kaliba,  Czech Radio

And the final section is called transformative and it is about people who are using sneakers –footwear in particular –to address issues of inclusivity, both from the point of differently-abled bodies to who makes sneakers and then also looking as some designers who are really walking that fine edge between sneakers and art.

“Across the hall is an exhibition called “Obsessed” –how shoes became objects of desire –and the third temporary exhibition is called “In Bloom” -flowers in footwear -and that is a celebration of how Nature has inspired shoe designers around the world.

Listen to the full interview with Elizabeth Semmelhack in audio

Author: Jan Kaliba
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