Among the hundreds of details that needed attention in the months leading up to the May 6 opening of the Bata Shoe Museum was the creation of a coat of arms. During a recent luncheon, Sonja Bata, the driving force behind the unusual museum in downtown Toronto, and Robert Watt, the chief herald of the College of Heraldry, worked out all the design elements except one - a motto. But as they were leaving their meeting, they bumped into author Robertson Davies. When Bata asked him whether he could suggest a motto for the coat of arms, he replied immediately, "One step at a time." Indeed, Davies's phrase, translated into the Latin Per Saecula Gradatim, succinctly captures the essence of the museum, whose 10,000 shoes and related artifacts were collected over nearly five decades and span more than 4,000 years of footwear - from Egyptian wooden sandals from 2500 BC to moon boots worn by NASA astronauts.
The motto is equally fitting for Bata Ltd., itself, the global shoe manufacturing and retailing organization that served as the springboard for the museum. Sonja Wettstein, who trained as an architect in her native Switzerland, became interested in shoes after her 1946 marriage to Thomas Bata, whose family shoe enterprise in Czechoslovakia had been nationalized by the Communists in 1945. As she helped her husband rebuild the business into a global concern, now headquartered in Toronto, she began to gather samples of traditional and exotic footwear from around the world. To the burgeoning collection she added both historically and anthropologically significant shoes and boots. These range from 19th-century French chestnut crushers with long metal spikes, to shockingly tiny silk slippers for Chinese bound feet, to a comprehensive selection of footgear gathered from Lapland, Siberia, Canada and Alaska. Some 20th-century celebrities, including Pablo Picasso, Elton John and Karen Kain, also contributed shoes to Bata over the years.
The result is a museum unlike any other. While some museums display shoes as part of their historical costume collections, others feature just one type of footwear: the Northampton Museum in Northampton, England, has a special collection of boots worn in the Battle of Waterloo. Bata acknowledges that the venture is a personal passion, but she expects that it will appeal to a wide range of visitors, from academics to those interested in what their ancestors wore. "No artifact tells you more about people than a pair of shoes," she explains. "Shoes tell us about their way of life, their status in society, the climate in which they lived, their activities and sometimes even their religious beliefs."
Creating a permanent home for such an extensive collection was no mean feat. By 1979, it had outgrown the Batas' available private storage space, and Sonja Bata decided to establish a foundation to professionally manage the collection. But it took 15 years to find the right site to display them, on Toronto's busy Bloor Street. Then, internationally renowned Toronto architect Raymond Moriyama, whose other works include the Ontario Science Centre and the Canadian Embassy in Tokyo, took on the commission to design "a small gem of a museum." While addressing its functional requirements, such as making the shoes accessible to the public while protecting them from light, moisture and dust, Moriyama also had to contend with strict zoning bylaws and building regulations.
In the end, Moriyama resolved the conflicting objectives with a design inspired by a shoe box. The angled roofline of the three-storey rectangular building - two more levels are below ground - suggests a lid resting on an open box. As the copper-clad trim develops a green patina with age, the lid effect will become more pronounced. The inside central hall is dominated by a 42-foot-high window, which casts intriguing shadows on a nearby staircase, prompting visitors to notice their own feet as they go up and down the steps. Moriyama also kept his client happy by coming in on budget. "It was a tight budget," says Bata, who declined to reveal the amount. "But Ray and I think very much alike and he was able to enter into the spirit of the project." Bata is proud of the fact that most of the museum's funding comes from the Bata Shoe Museum Foundation: "There is not a penny of government financing."
The public exhibition galleries are designed to house both permanent and changing shows. The main opening exhibit, All About Shoes, starts with a plaster cast of the first known human-like footprints, 3.7 million years old, that Mary Leakey discovered in Africa in 1978. Interactive displays highlight the social significance of shoes in various cultures, from their role as status symbol and object of beauty to the prominent part they play in life's rituals - from weddings to more exotic ceremonies. One pair of children's shoes - fashioned from linked silver squares - was worn by Mayan human sacrifices. Another exhibit, The Gentle Step, focuses on 19th-century women's shoes, depicting how changing styles reflected the changing roles of their wearers. One, Two, Buckle My Shoe is a hands-on display that uses book illustrations to show how shoes have figured prominently in children's literature. The final exhibit, Inuit Boots: A Woman's Art, uses a series of settings and a dramatic diorama to illustrate the lifestyle of the Inuit and their approach to kamik, or boot making.
As Bata takes a visitor through the museum, it is clear that she is no mere titular head of the institution. She speaks both knowledgeably and passionately about the objects in her care. "I have been personally involved in the purchase of every pair of shoes here," she says of the items that have come from special commissions and museum sell-offs, as well as purchases made on her extensive travels - sometimes directly off the feet of the wearer. It was during those travels that she first became fascinated by the history of shoes and how specific shapes and decorative treatments evolved in different cultures. When one tribe in Africa first began buying Western-style shoes, Bata explains, they always bought them several sizes too large. "When we looked into it, we discovered that they were used to wearing oversized sandals that allowed them to walk - almost as though they were wearing snowshoes - over the hot desert sand," she says.
It was Bata's realization that the global success of the basic running shoe was displacing ancient forms of shoemaking that prompted her to begin collecting. "I find it disturbing that the traditional ways of shoemaking are dying out," she says. Bata plans to slow down that process by bringing in elders from various societies to demonstrate the old techniques.
A unique contribution to a rarely appreciated aspect of social history, the Bata Museum will no doubt leave its own unmistakable imprint.
Maclean's May 15, 1995