Interview: Bata Shoe Museum Senior Curator Elizabeth Semmelhack

We recently visited the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto to check out their exhibit, Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture, to get schooled on the history of the sneaker. The exhibit was developed by Senior Curator of the Bata Shoe Museum, Elizabeth Semmelhack, who has worked at the museum since 2000 and has also consulted for other institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. We sat down with Elizabeth to find out more about how she developed the exhibit and the plans for its future.

How did you come up with the idea for Out of the Box: The Rise of Sneaker Culture?
Historically, the Bata Shoe Museum hasn’t collected sneakers, yet sneaker culture is such an important part of the history of footwear today. I saw an opportunity to not only engage with the long history of the sneaker, but also bring it up to contemporary times and work with contemporary collectors. It was a really interesting opportunity. I’m always interested in why something has been made, and why the sneaker was invented in the first place is fascinating. Since we engage with all types of footwear, I think that hopefully this exhibit has expanded what people think we do here at the Bata Shoe Museum.

How many pairs of shoes are included in this exhibit?
There are about 130 pairs of shoes, and given that we don’t collect sneakers, it meant that there had to be a lot of participation from major archives and major collectors. Once the idea was out there, everyone really came on board. It was fantastic.

Who were some of the first people to reach out and contribute to the sneaker portion of this exhibit?
The first people I had to call were Run-DMC. I called them and Eric Blam, and immediately got a very positive response. I knew that was setting me off on the right foot. Christian Louboutin was also extremely willing to lend to the exhibition, and he actually donated to the museum’s collection. I also worked with Dionne Walcott from Toronto Loves Kicks, and she allowed us to look at local collectors and also expand into an international web of people. We got sneakers from around the world like Ponys from Hong Kong. I was so impressed by how enthusiastic everybody was to participate.

What’s the one shoe everyone talks about or focuses on in the exhibit?
There are a couple of really important shoes. Obviously, the fact that Nike designer Tinker Hatfield picked the shoes that defined his career is a really important contribution to this exhibition. For me, though, the ones I really love are the Stewie Griffin Nikes. I think they’re so beautiful and eye catching. They’re also a media darling. They’re very photogenic. [Laughs]

What’s next for the exhibition?
The American Federation of the Arts, which is based out of New York City, has taken on Out of the Box as a traveling exhibition, so we’re now in negotiations with a number of large museums across the United States. We’re hopeful that a major museum in the New York City area will exhibit it and that it will go all the way across America, ending on the West Coast. It should travel for about a year, there will be a book that accompanies it, and it will be updated to reflect the most recent sneakers as it moves across the United States.

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