Down the street from the diamond façade of the Royal Ontario Museum, beyond the Royal Conservatory is a jewel in its own right, the Bata Shoe Museum (BSM). This shoebox-shaped treasure trove is likely to please all footwear enthusiasts.
Approaching the building, one quickly finds that shoes can also be art. The glittering display windows are colourfully designed, forming the flowers that represent each of the provinces and territories, all made of shoes, done in a partnership with Ryerson University in Toronto.
The building, designed by local Toronto architecture firm, Moriyama and Teshima, was created in 1995 to represent a shoebox. If the firm’s name sounds familiar, it could be because they have also designed many other notable museums, such as the Ontario Science Centre, the Canadian War Museum and the Aga Khan Museum.
Sonja Bata began amassing shoes in the 1940s, travelling abroad to buy the most unique and creative footwear she could find. The Bata family created the Bata Shoe Museum Foundation in 1979, which continued to amass and research footwear. The BSM collection now holds over 13,000 pairs of shoes (unfortunately, only about 3% are on display, a small percentage even for museum standards).
The museum has three floors. The first is below ground and houses All About Shoes. This semi-permanent exhibit traces the evolution of shoes back to the Ötzi Man, who lived approximately 4,500 years ago. It then continues it’s trajectory towards the present, exploring time periods, cultures and continents. As the exhibition approaches present day, the section divides into the main religions, and the importance of footwear for them. To transition to the second floor, visitors climb up a beautiful wooden staircase showcasing various shoemaking tools. On the date of my visit, there was a semi-permanent exhibit, Behind the Scenes: A Glimpse into Artefact Storage. On display were rare and unique items, such as the vintage Chimù ataderos (ankle boots) from the mid-15th century and more recently, a pair of shoes worn by Audrey Graham, more commonly known as Drake.
The items that I found the most surprising and interesting were not the most gilded or colourful. What struck me the most were shoes worn by Chinese women to bind their feet. While I had heard of the practice before, I hadn’t seen these shoes in real life and I was taken aback by how tiny they were, and they definitely made me rethink complaining about how much my feet were hurting that day!
The temporary exhibits offer a few more opportunities to explore some thematic elements of the collection of the BSM, such as the importance of gold throughout history and in various cultures, Traditional Arctic footwear, or the design inspirations of Manolo Blahnik.
Unfortunately, as shared by many other visitors, at least according to online reviews, the museum does feel to be lacking. While the building is beautiful, it is small, and visitors may end up underwhelmed upon leaving.
Some practical information which may be of use: there are very little interactive elements for children, none of which are in the exhibitions themselves. A visit to read everything took about two hours, but the average visitor would probably take about one hour. There is a gift shop, but no café. Photographs are permitted, but only without flash.
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