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.

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