The Bata Shoe Museum, situated on a prominent boulevard in Toronto, houses a collection of footwear which would be the envy of any shoe connoisseur or for that matter, people like us, who are generally curious!
At a time when it was quite rare to find a manufacturing company dedicate resources for research and public education, Sonja Bata, the wife of Thomas J Bata, (founder of Bata Inc) a visionary in her own right, was instrumental in setting up the Bata Shoe Foundation in 1979, and subsequently the museum, which opened its doors to the public in 1995. While it began with her own private collection of shoes gathered during her travels with her husband abroad, it now houses more than 14000 pieces from different parts of the world!
The award-winning building designed by Canadian architect Raymond Moriyama is said to have been inspired, aptly so by a shoebox! The five-storey structure has a compact floor plan, which includes state-of-the-art exhibition spaces, conservation facilities, rooms for educational programs, a small gift store and a beautiful well-lit atrium.
Following the museums guide map, my daughters and I started our tour a floor below ground level and worked our way up the rest of the four floors. This was our second visit in five years, and we were excited to revisit the old and explore the new exhibits.
The basement houses a permanent exhibit called ‘All About Shoes’. We were familiar with this from our previous visit, but nevertheless it was great refreshing our memories. This exhibit presents a very engaging history and evolution of shoes from the first man recorded wearing them to the popularity of high heels and platforms, to the unique ones like the replica of the shoes Armstrong wore on his moon walk! They share information of how they were made and what they symbolized. A section which especially caught my eye here was the role shoes occupy in all major religions of the world. The display reads, “Religious beliefs have impacted the form and function of footwear around the world. Many religions have ceremonial footwear which reflects denominational status….many cultures also require the removal of footwear upon entering sacred places as an expression of humility.” Bata shoe museum 2023.
The other small but amusing section on this floor is that of shoes which appear in fairy tales and nursey rhymes! Apparently the story of Cinderella we are told, originated in France and has multiple cultural variations now, with a display of the famous glass shoe as well as that of a blue porcelain one which appears in its Korean version!
At the atrium on this level visitors are welcome to try out a variety of footwear, from the practical clogs and crocs to the most outrageous pair of platform heels ! It almost felt like being let loose in a fantasy world of shoes!!
Making our way to the second floor the exhibit which caught all our attention and turned out to be our favourite, was the thought provoking, almost tantalizing, section on the future of shoes called, Future Now: virtual sneakers to cutting edge kicks: (On view until Oct. 2023): It is about the future of shoes from virtual to futuristic footwear. They have over fifty plus designs, mostly sneakers on display made from unique materials, using cutting-edge technology by designers (from Zaha Hadid to Nike) and brands from around the world. The exhibit is divided into sections titled: virtual, transformative, sustainable, innovative and break the mould.
The sub-section on sneakers was quite an eye-opening experience, introducing us to a Sneakerworld we had only seen or heard mentioned in movies! We saw some mind blowing designs apparently sold at equally mind-boggling prices on the ‘mysterious’ world of sneaker trading which takes place in ether, the cryptocurrency in the Ethereum network! For eg 30 ether, is the price of one of the sneakers on exhibit, which roughly amounts to USD$ 90,000!! Marked as ‘highest sum paid for a footwear’ !
It was refreshing though to see (and bring us down to earth!) ones which were meant as political statements as well as those around gender and racial equality. This section not only presents shoe samples, but raises questions and curiosity in the minds of visitors with well scripted display cards.
The section titled ‘Innovative’ shows all sorts of possible concepts we could do to make shoes whether virtually or in real life. My daughters and I were amazed to see and curious to learn about the ‘My Cell’ concept. The idea here is to “grow” one’s own footwear with flour, mycelium, and water. Another similar idea is making shoes out of mushroom leather, which uses mycelium to make shoes similar to leather. People are already working on virtually making shoes with 3D printers and also eco-friendly designs.
The other half of the same floor hosts an exhibition titled Obsessed (On view until April 2024): It presents how and why society seems to have an obsession with footwear and how shoes are used as self-expression and status symbol. It also questions and asks visitors opinions about why they think they need to possess so many pairs of shoes?! A question I too ask of myself (!) and the students who enrol in my course on consumerism, the intent of which in part, is to question the reasons and patterns behind our own consumption behaviour and how much of it is responsible for products going into landfills, impacting our environment.
The fourth and topmost floor holds a seasonal exhibit, aptly called ‘In Bloom’(On view until Oct. 2024): This exhibit shares the language of flowers, eight to be precise and how they are used to inspire shoe designs. Panels with beautiful art work explain how each of the eight flowers imply different meanings around the world and are used in many types of art and clothing, including shoes.
While my daughter appreciated the high heels from the 1900s, my eyes caught two exhibits in particular, both from India (of course). One was on the Phulkari designed shoes (mojris) and the other was a pair of embroidered tall boots, a 2019 Indo-French haute courtier collaboration between designer Sabyasachi Mukherjee and Christian Louboutin.
Beauty lies in the details as they say, and rightly so, it is evident all throughout this museum. Whether it is the aptly designed shoe bench for young visitors to browse through a collection of fairy tales, the tall mirror in the atrium to try out shoes, the floral wall prints in the Bloom exhibit or the thought provoking texts on its cards and posters, one can sense the hands and minds of a good team of researchers, interior designers and curators behind each exhibit.
A missing café and absence of shoe replica souvenirs in the museum store are our only regrets here! While the exhibits were ‘soul’ satisfying (pun intended!) a little café would have helped replenish us three hungry souls! It was nevertheless a day well spent with my daughters, at this gem of a museum. We would highly recommend that visitors add it to their itinerary when visiting Toronto.
Jennifer Jalal, Emilie Aheli and Ella Aria