The Bata Shoe Museum’s Senior Curator Reflects On Its 25-Year History

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Chris So/Toronto Star via Getty Images

“I’m not just interested in shoes, I’m interested in the stories that they have to tell,” says the museum’s creative director and senior curator Elizabeth Semmelhack.

The Bata Shoe Museum may be celebrating its 25th anniversary this year, but its creative director and senior curator Elizabeth Semmelhack has a momentous milestone of her own to celebrate too: 20 years working at the renowned Toronto museum. Semmelhack began working at the museum in 2000 as a curator, armed with a doctorate degree in Japanese art history.

“I wasn’t exactly sure how long I would stay in footwear but I do have to say that even after 20 years there are so many questions I still want to have answered, and I have found the subject really, really interesting,” says Semmelhack over the phone. “20 years ago, and even more so when the museum opened 25 years ago, the idea that footwear was a subject for serious academic inquiry was just not on people’s radars yet,” she says.

Like the mass-produced 18th century Japanese prints that she was studying before she joined the Bata Shoe Museum, shoes are created for mass consumption, a point of academic interest for Semmelhack.

“I’m very interested in things that become mass consumed because those are the things that speak to a moment. Rather than a unique object that maybe is ahead of its time or only speaks to a few people, something like shoes— when they go viral or become central to constructions of gender or status—they’re doing really wide-ranging and important work that needs interrogation.”

In honour of the Bata Shoe Museum’s 25th anniversary, we spoke to Semmelhack about her decades studying historical and contemporary footwear, what makes shoes fascinating, and the special coffee-table book the museum has published with Rizzoli to mark the milestone anniversary, titled The World at Your Feet.

You must have had big plans to celebrate the museum’s 25th anniversary. With everything delayed or rescheduled due to the coronavirus, what do those plans look like now?

Obviously our first and foremost concern is for the health of our community. While we had a big party planned for the launch of this book, as well as a new exhibition, all of those things have been put aside. I think those kinds of big celebrations where we can all get together are going to happen in a post-vaccine time. We had 25 programs scheduled for our 25th anniversary that I was so excited about, so our question is can we move all of that online? Stay tuned and check the museum’s website often!

What was the process of working on the coffee-table book, and how did you narrow down the 100 shoes featured in it?

That was a very, very challenging task, I have to say. We’re inching towards 15,000 artifacts [at the museum]. Obviously you can’t have a book that’s 15,000 pages no matter how much I wish that we could. I really wanted for the book to have a selection of shoes that were spectacular to look at, but that also have interesting stories and show the breadth of the collection.

Tell us about some of the shoes you eventually selected.

I included the oldest artifact we have in the museum. It’s a pair of wooden sandals from ancient Egypt, about 4,500 years old roughly. They were never meant to be worn, they were specifically designed to be included at a gravesite because of course, ancient Egyptians believed you needed to take [things] with you when you went.

I also included a pair of 1985 Air Jordan 1s. They’re now called 1s, back then they were just the Air Jordans. It’s incredible to have an original pair in the collection because they were such an important moment in the rise of sneaker culture. I think they’re a cultural treasure.

We have a beautiful pair of Nalins in the metallic section, which are Hammam shoes. They come from the Ottoman period and they’re Turkish. Silver shoes like this pair were gifts to young brides for the ritual of the bridal bath and they’re just beautiful, precious objects. They relate to this very, very long tradition of shoes worn in bath houses with heated floors that goes all the way back to ancient Rome, but at the same time they also have the initials of the bride. So they reflect this larger cultural practice but you also remember that they were made for a specific young bride at the turn of the 20th century.

We also have some incredible moccasins from the late 19th century worn by the Nehiyawak people. What I love about them is the incredible beadwork. The pattern, the colour combinations, the incredible skill with which the beadwork is done… they’re really spectacular.

The Bata Shoe Museum has the largest collection of international footwear in the world. How do you go about sourcing these shoes and footwear artifacts?

Even though institutions are now increasingly collecting footwear, there are not often auctions that are footwear-focused. Sometimes shoes can be found within costume auctions, like Sotheby’s and Christie’s; sometimes dealers who know that we’re a specialized museum will reach out to us; sometimes it’s Etsy and eBay. We also get a lot of donations. I learned early on in my career to look at anything anybody had to offer. Someone might have something in their attic that may not be of interest to them but turns out to be something that plugs a hole perfectly for us.

And also, I’m not just interested in shoes, I’m interested in the stories that they have to tell. Some of the most interesting ones come from people and their own personal history or family history and they can give context to who the wearer was, what the shoes were worn for. One of the earliest pieces that I collected when I became curator were from someone who just came to the museum with a pair of shoes that had been given to her by her US boyfriend, who was stationed in France during World War II. They were Parisian shoes that were the height of fashion at the time but made with war-time rationed materials. They had the best and most amazing story. And that’s when I learned that lesson; you never know how shoes are going to find their way to the museum.

What have been some of your favourite exhibits to curate over the years?

The first exhibition I ever did, “Heights of Fashion,” on the history of the high heel. It was the first time the subject had been explored, academically or in a museum. I had a very innocent question—why the high heel and where did it come from?—which led to a huge amount of research. I’ve been able to trace it as far back as 10th century Persia and I’ve been able to prove that it was worn for horseback riding by men first and that it was only at the turn of the 17th century that European men became interested in heels. So that became a defining exhibition of my career.

In relation to that, I curated an exhibit called “Standing Tall: The Curious History of Men in Heels” and also “On a Pedestal: From Renaissance Chopines to Baroque Heels.” In fashion history for a long time people thought that the high heel had come out of the chopine, which is a really high platform shoe, and I was able to prove that that was not the case, which became career-defining for me. We borrowed chopines from all across Europe including Venice, where they reached their highest height. They lent us two of their tallest chopines and said that we would be the only museum they would lend them to and that they would never lend them out again. So that was a once-in-a-lifetime chance.

Also, with “Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture,” I looked at the whole history of sneakers, and it became a travelling exhibition with the American Federation of Art and went across the US. Hopefully all of the exhibits at the museum show that you can be both cutting edge in terms of research but also provide very engaging topics that give entry points to larger cultural questions.

Speaking of larger cultural questions, you said earlier that “shoes speak to a moment.” How do you think this current moment will affect shoe design and trends going forward?

Because we’ve been barefoot at home or wearing slippers or very comfortable footwear, when the opportunity arises for us to “dress up” again, I think it could go one of two ways: we could be excited that we can finally dress up again or it could be that the line between private and personal has become so blurred because we’re working from home, we’re living in our homes, that we will not have the interest in demarcating that difference anymore and we will opt for comfort. My guess is that we’re going to opt for comfort. So maybe we end up with more glamorous sneakers or more designer options in comfortable footwear. My guess is that getting dressed up again that first time is going to be surprising to many of us.

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