Elizabeth Ann Semmelhack ’86 invites you to explore a most unique museum
Are you curious? That is the question Elizabeth Ann Semmelhack ’86, curator at the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, is asking you to ask yourself. For if you are, you might consider setting foot in one of the most original museums in North America. Housed in a four-story building, designed by native Canadian and award-winning architect Raymond Moriyama—most notable for conceiving the Ontario Science Center, the Japanese Canadian Cultural Centre in Toronto, and the internationally praised National Museum of Saudi Arabia in Riyadh—more than 13,000 pairs of shoes are waiting to be discovered. According to Semmelhack, the museum’s slogan “For the curious” is a reminder that this familiar object—so familiar in fact that it can sometimes be overlooked—still remains a mystery in many ways. “Some people might think that, because they can relate to it so well, there’s nothing to learn. So it’s sort of a challenge ‘to the curious,’ to come in and see what can be learned from shoes.” And indeed, there is much to discover.
When Semmelhack graduated in 1986, she did not yet know that she was interested in art history or curatorial work but “Bennington was important in making me a flexible thinker,” she explains. Following her BA, she went on to do an MA in Western Art History at Tufts University to pursue her interest in “why people made things” and “how these things were given social significance.” She continued her studies as a doctoral fellow in Asian Art History at Washington University in St. Louis, where she focused on 18th-century Japanese print culture. Through her study of Japanese prints, she further realized that her interest lay particularly with aspects of dress that could both reflect and impact the culture in which they were used. Semmelhack held various positions at the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, the Whitney Museum of American Art, and the IBM Gallery of Science as well as the St. Louis Art Museum. She accepted the position of head curator of the Bata Shoe Museum in 2000.
For the former philosophy, Japanese literature, painting, printmaking, and Indian art history student, no day resembles the next. “That is what I love about this job. On any given day, it’s going to be shoe-related but I don’t know in which way it’s going to be shoe-related. That’s very fun.” She recounts the tale of a call she received from the local law enforcement that had just located a corpse in a stream. They contacted the Bata Shoe Museum in hopes that someone might be able to identify the shoes found along with the body and to possibly date them. Semmelhack herself was able to date the pair of rubber boots to the early 1900s and, as a result, helped to clear the case.
“Because shoes are so ubiquitous, I never know who’s going to call,” she adds. Vogue, one day; a murder investigator, the next. Beyond this daily excitement, working at the shoe museum allows Semmelhack to engage her interests in history, culture, and anthropology: “What I love to do is take this overlooked object and to think about how it can reveal aspects of the culture in which it was won. Around the world, footwear has varied dramatically depending upon culture, climate, social status, and so something that might be considered as humble as a shoe can actually be such an important steppingstone into larger cultural issues.” She adds that working as a curator at the shoe museum has also allowed her to shift from a narrow focus on the “maker”—a traditional focal point in art history studies—to the wearer.
In fact, with shoes, you “cannot escape the wearer,” Semmelhack explains. “Shoes are some of the most intimate things we wear and our imprints remain tangible long after we have discarded them.” When she began her career at the Bata Shoe Museum, one of the first pairs of shoes she worked on originally belonged to a small child in the 16th century. It was stunning, she remembers, because they were still very much shaped to their little owner’s feet and she recalls feeling, “There’s still a body in there.”
In certain cases, shoes do become an integral part of an individual’s body. In fact, one of the first exhibitions Semmelhack worked on was a show on Chinese foot binding, a case of the foot and shoe being quite literally made to fit each other and become one. “Everyone seemed to have an opinion on foot binding. Everyone had a reaction,” she distinctly remembers. Strangely though, when it comes to high heels—used throughout the Western world and beyond as an item of fashion—“many people wear them unquestionably.” In reaction to this double-standard, Semmelhack organized an exhibition on high heels as a complement to the Chinese foot-binding show, which was highly successful and became the topic of her first book, Heights of Fashion: A History of the Elevated Shoe (Periscope, 2008).
Beyond an interest in the high heel itself, it is an interest in gender that drove Semmelhack to write this book. The history of the high heel is a long and complicated one that originated with equestrian footwear from Western Asia, she points out. The simple heel was originally invented to help prevent a rider’s foot from slipping out of the stirrup. “When heels were first introduced into the West at the end of the 16th century, they were embraced as equestrian shoes for men,” she further adds. High heels, however, as items of court fashion evolved over the course of the 17th century and only become a highly gendered article of female dress in the 18th century. It is the shift of the high heel’s status first as an object representative of a male and somewhat military activity, to that of an object of seduction—for mostly women—that she explores in her book and that keeps her up at night.
Gender issues and dress is one of Semmelhack’s current focuses but, as she puts it, it doesn’t end there. “There are many things that I am interested in. I’m working on a second book with Reaktion Press in London and they have a series called the “Object Series.” The point of the Object Series is to explore an item that was instrumental in shaping the 20th century. Airplanes, factories, and shoes are all part of the equation. “Specifically, I’m looking at the construction of social identity with footwear throughout the 20th century.”
With much on her mind, the Bennington alumna is preparing for a number of highly anticipated exhibitions this spring including an exhibition on the innovative technology used to create high-performance Winter Olympic footwear for the Bata Shoe Museum and an exhibition for Harlequin Publishers on the history of their cover art. Lately, Semmelhack has focused her efforts on Renaissance and Early Baroque footwear from 1450 to 1660, for an exhibition including loans from around the world. If you’re ever headed to Toronto, pack a pair of walking shoes and stop in for a tour.
Elizabeth Semmelhack has been featured in articles and interviews in National Geographic, Vogue, Elle, InStyle, W Magazine, Women’s Wear Daily, Forbes Magazine, The New Yorker, GQ, South China Morning Post, Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, The New York Times, The National Post, The Toronto Star, The Globe & Mail, and many others. She has also appeared on NBC’s Today Show, Late Night with Conan O’Brien, CBC’s Life and Times, and HGTV’s Designer Guys.