Toronto's Bata Shoe Museum Offers Insights Into All Manner of Footwear

At the Bata Shoe Museum, visitors can explore world cultures and their styles, from wingtips to moccasins.
At the Bata Shoe Museum, visitors can explore world cultures and their styles, from wingtips to moccasins. (By Sharon Matthews-stevens)
By Mark Stevens
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 2, 2009

I could write you a Toronto "bucket list" a foot long and you'd never see a shoe museum on it.

You'd find the Royal Ontario Museum: armor, dinosaur skeletons, mummies. Hockey Hall of Fame, hands down. Even Casa Loma with its knights and dungeons and secret passages.

But a shoe museum? I don't see it. Not a guy thing.

Then again, Toronto's Bata Shoe Museum is on my wife's bucket list, so it's not as if I have a choice.

Besides, where's the harm? There are close to 13,000 pairs of shoes and related items in the collection housed in the modernistic museum on Bloor Street -- appropriately enough, just down from Mink Mile, Toronto's answer to Rodeo Drive. But in the museum itself you can't buy so much as a Birkenstock. Nice art-type books, intriguing souvenirs. But no shoes for sale. Talk about win-win.

When I get there, though, things start off on the wrong foot.

Timidly I peruse the limestone facade, walls askew, gigantic slabs imported from Lyons, France, canted out over the street, topped by a copper roof. Designed by eminent architect Raymond Moriyama (he also did the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa), it's supposed to look like the lid of a shoe box. Impressive though it is from street level -- great glass windows with overgrown bronzed footwear suspended midair -- it still looks to me as though the crew that stuck the roof on had a few too many cocktails before engaging in the process.

Even so, I gird my loins, pull myself up by the bootstraps and enter through the door, a crystal triangle cut from the face of the stone. Once inside, before I've even taken 10 steps, I put my foot in it with what I think is a fair question. Curator Elizabeth Semmelhack disagrees.

"No," she answers sternly, "I am not a foot fetishist." Then she smiles. "But if I was, there are worse places to work."

The lady is an eminent art historian: Her last job was as chief art history lecturer at the St. Louis Art Museum. She's also a master of understatement.

Onward and upward. I study the three temporary exhibits and a semi-permanent one, all the while thinking that foot fetishists who do visit must feel as if they've died and gone to Imelda Marcos's closet. True Nirvana.

That is my last rational thought as the rest of the world grows dim and I travel through time, through place, watching my own feet in the ingeniously designed mirrored display cases moving past leather signs, up stairs with bronzed medallions memorializing the shoemaking trade, tiptoeing through a place where corns and bunions are a bad dream, where fallen arches have ne'er been seen.

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