Friday, March 8, 2019

Celebrating International Women's Day

The history of the Bata Shoe Museum is filled with the work of women.  Today on International Women’s Day, we would like to take a moment to recognize some of the many women who have shaped our institution and its Collection, starting of course, with Museum Founder Sonja Bata.

It was while travelling around the world on shoe business that Sonja Bata developed a passion for collecting rare and traditional footwear from every corner of the world. Her fascination with ethnography, design and history led her to amass a vast number of extraordinary shoes. This was the birth of what was to become the most comprehensive collection of historic footwear in the world and the Bata Shoe Museum.  A unique cultural gem in the heart of Toronto, it continues to reflect the vision of its Founder, who looked at shoes as a way to understand culture, anthropology, craftsmanship and ingenuity.  A true collector who found great joy in the act of sharing her finds with others, she was particularly proud of the education and community‐building roles of her museum.

Museum Founder Sonja Bata 

Mrs. Bata’s first curator was ethnologist Alika Webber who spent years researching the traditional footwear of native North Americans.  It was Alika Webber who encouraged Mrs. Bata to become more focused in her collecting and to catalogue her collection thereby laying the foundation for the Bata Shoe Museum.  Alika Webber’s own ground-breaking work included the publication of a typology of Native North American footwear.

Intrepid researcher Dr. Jill Oakes, a professor in the University of Manitoba’s Department of Environment and Geography, worked with her husband Rick Riewe, a professor of zoology, to make several field trips on behalf of the museum.  They documented traditional boot-making across the circumpolar regions of the world including, Canada, Alaska, Siberia, Greenland and Scandinavia.

Jill Oakes learning to make boot ties. Jokkmokk, Sweden

For years, whenever travel writer Ruth Malloy ventured from her home in Toronto she kept an eye out for interesting footwear.  With each trip to China and Inner Mongolia her interest became increasingly keen. In 2005, Malloy decided to visit Mongolia and collected footwear for the Bata Shoe Museum.  Her study trip resulted in the acquisition of numerous artefacts for the museum’s Collection and each pair of boots was accompanied by documentary photographs and invaluable interviews that allow us to preserve the traditional step-by-step process of Mongolian boot-making.

Ruth Malloy in the BSM storage room with Tibet boots she collected for the museum ( Image © Ruth Malloy)

 Today, the Bata Shoe Museum’s Senior Curator Elizabeth Semmelhack applies her cultural art history background to the mission of the museum by exploring the multiple roles and meanings of footwear through innovative and engaging exhibitions. Her work focuses on the construction of gender in relation to dress with a particular interest in the history of elevating footwear.  Her findings have resulted in the publication of multiple books on this subject matter, making her a world-recognized expert in the history of footwear.

Senior Curator Elizabeth Semmelhack in BSM storage.

This list does not touch upon the efforts of the thousands of women whose work as shoemaker for her family or community now has a permanent home in our Collection, or whose traditional knowledge has continued to be passed down through generations.  It does not count the many women who have worked behind the scenes as museum staff, or the countless volunteers and docents who give their time to contribute to the museum’s success.  On this day, when women around the world are recognized for their achievements without regard to divisions, whether national, ethnic, linguistic, cultural, economic or political, we would like to take a moment to say thank you to all the women who have shaped the Bata Shoe Museum, both past, present and into the future.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Successful Summer for the Digital Photography Project

The Bata Shoe Museum’s Collections Management project to digitally photograph everything in the collection has moved ahead this summer. Heading the project since 2007, Suzanne Petersen, Collections Manager, was so pleased to have two university students join the museum this summer for a 12-week Young Canada Works program, funded in part by the Government of Canada.

Antonia Anagnostopoulos and Kelsey Myler worked with Suzanne to photograph a segment of the collection in high resolution digital format. After specialized training on-the-job, the team has created photographs of almost 1000 artefacts, a process that involves many steps, exacting attention to detail, metadata collection and team work.

Antonia Anagnostopoulos
Antonia has completed her third year in the University of Toronto’s History of Art program. She was the Artefact Handler for the project and was tasked with the safe and proper movement of artefacts. She planned the shot-order and movement of the artefacts from the storage rooms to the photography studio where she prepared the objects for photography by removing storage mounts. After placing an artefact on the photo backdrop, she worked with the Photographer to perfect the composition of the shot, moving the artefact slightly in order to capture its most photographic angle.

Kelsey  Myler
Kelsey was the Photographer on the project. As an Image Arts - Photography student at Ryerson University, she brought her passion for photography and her image software skills. For the project, Kelsey set up all of the photography equipment and maintained it, making sure she captured the object in its best light and angle. She also tracked all of the shots in a journal which was updated with every capture.

After the actual shooting was done, the team processed, resized, formatted and renamed the image files and then uploaded them with metadata to the Museum’s custom database. Today the new photographs are available to staff and researchers for use on our social media, website, publications and more.

This project has been made possible in part by funding from the Government of Canada.

Suzanne Petersen

15 August 2018

Monday, August 13, 2018

Conservation Blog - Golden Booties for the Well-Shod Woman

In China during the era of foot binding, the ideal size for women’s feet was considered to be san cun, a measurement that roughly equals 7.62 centimetres or 3 inches.  Feet that achieved this perfect size were called jin lian or ‘golden lotuses’. These narrow red silk boots come from Zhejiang and were made to be worn in winter. They are decorated with symbols of good fortune including bats and peonies and date to the early 20th century

This particular pair of red silk booties was purchased by the BSM from a private collector specializing in bound-foot shoes from China and Taiwan. They were in poor condition when they were acquired, and needed a great deal of careful conservation work by BSM conservator Ada Hopkins. Many of the stitches that anchored the golden threads to the red silk had broken, leaving the embroidery looking as though it had been teased with a comb! In order to prevent further unraveling someone with good intentions had stuck the lose threads in place with scotch tape.

Tape securing lose threads in place. The ink outlines of the peony are visible in areas where the gold thread is missing.

The metallic threads are composed of two elements: an extremely thin flat yellow metal strand, which was wrapped around a silk thread core. Images of peonies (symbolizing wealth and honour) and bats (auspicious creatures that bring happiness and good fortune)  were drawn in ink onto the silk by the embroiderer. Starting on the perimeter of each design component (a wing or a petal), the metallic thread was laid down following the ink outline in an ever decreasing path towards the centre. The threads were secured to the fabric every two millimeters with a fine silk thread.

Lose tangled threads.

The first step in the treatment involved removing the scotch tape. Luckily its adhesive had dried out so it was just a matter of gently peeling off the carrier film. As the tape was removed, the newly released gold threads were loosely secured with a series of basting stitches to prevent them becoming further entangled with neighbouring threads.

These basted areas were worked on one at a time. The gold threads were gently untwisted, starting at an unanchored end and removing knots using fine tipped tweezers under a magnifying lens. Next the gold thread was worked around the existing pattern, working from the centre to the outer edge (the reverse of the original embroiderer). The threads were tacked in place with very thin entomology pins. Pinning everything in place gave Ada an opportunity check that the threads were properly placed before stitching them down with fine hair silk using an extremely fine beading needle.

Areas of lose threads are basted together to prevent further tangling. Thin entomology pins hold the aligned threads in place before stitching begins.

While the booties were purchased in 2002 it was four years before Ada was able to put aside the considerable time required to undertake the conservation. They are currently on display in "The Gold Standard: Glittering Footwear from Around the Globe".

Friday, June 1, 2018

Manolo Blahnik: The Art of Shoes ~ A Retrospective at the Bata Shoe Museum

Manolo Blahnik has risen to fame as one of the world's most famous contemporary shoe designers. From delicate and incredibly intricate shoes, to daring and cutting edge designs,  the singular talent of Manolo Blahnik has secured him a place in the history of fashion, and earned accolades and awards from all over the world. It was inevitable that a retrospective of his work would be staged, and the Bata Shoe Museum is honoured to have been personally chosen by Mr. Blahnik as the final stop on its tour around the world. Composed of over 200 shoes from his private archives, Manolo Blahnik: The Art of Shoes is an homage to the work of an incredible shoe designer.

Guest-curated by Cristina Carrillo de Albornoz, the intimate and thematic exhibition premiered in January 2017 at the Palazzo Morando in Milan.  From there it made stops in  Prague, St. Petersburg and Madrid, before travelling to Toronto for it's only North American stop.  An international team, including the curatorial department of the Bata Shoe Museum, worked for over a year to create an environment at the museum that showcased Mr. Blahnik's shoes in a way which would allow visitors to understand what moves and inspires Mr. Blahnik. According to Mr. Blahnik, his desire for the tour to end at the BSM was because he felt his shoes would be among friends here, as he expressed his admiration for the museum's collection and the work of it's founder Sonja Bata.

Mr. Blahnik prides himself on being first and foremost a craftsman and a technician, and it is this aspect of his work that continues to inspire and challenge him.  Every Manolo Blahnik shoe is designed by Mr. Blahnik, and each design begins life as a sketch.  Over 80 of these original sketches are on display in the gallery, many alongside the shoe they would eventually become, allowing visitors a glimpse into the process that goes into making these unique works of art.  His designs are driven by many sources of inspiration, including the natural world, history, personal muses, art and architecture. 

The BSM was honoured to have Mr. Blahnik join over 350 people at the museum for the opening of the exhibition, which was celebrated with a party fit for shoemaking royalty.  Guests had the opportunity to be among the first to see that exhibition and to meet the man whose shoes have never been more in demand - 44 years after he opened his first store in London.  

 Manolo Blahnik: The Art of Shoes runs at the Bata Shoe Museum until January 6th, 2019. 

Thursday, March 8, 2018

International Women's Day

Today is International Women’s Day, when the special contributions women make to society in all walks of life are celebrated. We have many remarkable shoes belonging to many remarkable women in the collection of the Bata Shoe Museum and as we like to say, every shoe tells a story. So this year, on this day, we wanted to tell the story of Patricia Fish through her army boots from the 1940s.  Her daughter, Hilary Lee, wrote the following when she donated them to the BSM in 2002.

“Patricia Fish was born on February 19, 1921 in Hamilton, Ontario. She spent her formative years moving back and forth between Canada and England, because of her father’s work. She was living in England when the World War II broke out and together with her father and brother, joined the Home Guard. In 1942, while still living in England, she enlisted in the Canadian Women's Army Corps because she felt the cause was just and she wanted to contribute. She was given the rank of Private. From time to time she was stationed in Brussels at CWAC headquarters where she was part of a typing pool. At other times, she was part of the contingent that followed behind the front lines where she could hear the artillery fire in the distance. In Belgium and Holland, she fulfilled her 100 hours of nursing taking care of burn victims, both adults and children. When stationed in England, she delivered messages between offices using a bicycle. She said that this job scared her the most because you never knew what was contained in the message you were carrying - one time it could be regular army paperwork, another time it could be top secret - and occasionally it could be a decoy message.  She had to be aware of anyone approaching her, and was even watchful of the planes overhead. She told of biking along with her message when a plane started flying directly overhead. When she made a turn, more to calm her nerves and let the plane fly on, the plane turned too. Apparently she pedaled faster than she ever had in her life so she could make it to her drop point. 

After the war, she remained in England and worked for a Member of Parliament. After she married in 1948, she returned to Canada and worked for A. V. Roe. Later in life she worked for the CBC and University of Toronto. In her private life, she was very active in the peace movement in the sixties and later became a member of Greenpeace. She traveled throughout the world, and attended many WWII anniversary events in Europe. She kept in touch with her army buddies until her death in 1999."


Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Otzi the Iceman

On September 19th, 1991, Ötzi the Iceman was found in the Austrian-Italian Alps. He is the oldest, best preserved human body known to science at 5300 years old. Ötzi  Man lived in approximately 3300 BCE and when his body was discovered he was still wearing one of his shoes, which are the oldest known preserved shoes in Europe. The thrilling discovery of this prehistoric shoe led to an in-depth study of his footwear. 

This exact replica, produced under the guidance of the late Czech researcher Dr. Petr Hlavácek, was part of that detailed research. This replica shoe is made from the original raw materials and using the primitive tools, like the flint-stone knife. The hides (bear leather, deer skin and veal skin) were tanned using the primitive technology that was most likely available to the Ötzi  man: beef brain mixed with pork liver, and lightly smoke-dried. After experimenting, Dr. Hlavacek's team believes they also found the Ötzi 's technique for making the bast strings.

This shoe was made to fit Dr. Hlavacek, and was worn by him on a 12-man Czech-Austrian expedition with representatives from Hlavacek's university and the media in September 2001. The men climbed to the peak of Mount Similaun (3,599 metres) shod in the replicas of the Iceman's shoes to demonstrate the footwear's suitability to Alpine snow, water and ice conditions.

Hlavacek's conclusions after two field tests were positive. Assuming the Ötzi 's shoes were custom tailored with an exactness of +/- 5mm, his boots allowed for very comfortable movement, even over uneven forest terrain. The shoes were so effective at weight distribution that the wearers had no blisters and feet were kept dry and warm, effective in temperatures of -5°C to -10°C.

You can see this replica shoe on display now in our "All About Shoes" exhibition. The Ötzi  man mummy is on view at the Museo Archeologico dell'Alto Adige (the South Tyrol Museum of Archeology), in Bolzano, Italy. Visit for more information. 

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Conservation Blog: Monkey Business

In 1986 the BSM acquired at auction an automaton made in the 1880s at the famous Phalibois workshop in Paris, France. It features a monkey cobbler sitting at his workbench under a flowering tree. This artifact was selected for the exhibition in the third floor gallery, Fashion Victims: The Pleasures and Perils of Dress in the 19th Century, thus providing an excellent opportunity to get the monkey in working order.

There are two separate mechanisms inside the ebonized base: one set of gears, cams and cam riders which make the monkey function when a key is turned; the other component is a music box that plays two tunes by pulling a string. There was one hundred and thirty years of dust and grime stuck to all these moving parts. The wood gears and brass arms to which the cam riders are attached were cleaned in-house. The music box was sent to Jeremie Ryder, an automaton conservator who takes care of the Murtogh D. Guinness Collection of Automatic Musical Instruments and Automata, at the Morris Museum in Morristown, New Jersey.

                               Brass arms viewed from above; cleaning in progress.

The vertical brass arms have riders at their mid-point which glide over the cut profile of the wooden cams, making the horizontal wires which pass upward into the monkey’s torso, move the head, the jaw, the eyes and an arm which bangs the hammer on the boot stand.

The mechanism at the top of the photo above shows the steel-pinned, brass cylinder, which as it rotates, plucks the teeth in the musical comb. Those plucked, vibrating teeth, produce the tones for the musical arrangement. Underneath the tooth tips, are found tiny chicken feathers, attached by shellac. They dampen an already vibrating tooth just before being plucked by another cylinder pin, thus reducing undesirable mechanical noises. All these feathers were replaced after the metal components were cleaned, as seen in the next photo.

The reassembled automaton can now be seen in Fashion Victims.  For a sneak peek of the monkey cobbler hard at work, check out the museum’s YouTube channel.