The Museum Column

cultural intelligence, exhibit reviews, museum news

The Bata Shoe Museum is a specialist museum, with a distinct focus.  Working within its particular scope, the Museum’s latest temporary exhibition has found a topic and approach to exhibiting it that extends into popular culture… and seems to be making an impact.

Out of the Box: the Rise of Sneaker Culture, is the first exhibition in North America to showcase the history of sneakers.  How could such ubiquitous part of our lives never have been presented in an exhibition before?  Perhaps it is just that: sneakers are everywhere, everyone wears them — they seem unremarkable, not worthy of a museum exhibition.  However, Elizabeth Semmelhack, curator of the exhibit, challenges our assumptions and by “making the familiar unfamiliar” inspires us to look at what is on our feet anew and to enjoy museum collections and history while we are doing it.  However, the show also has “star quality”, including the latest designs from fashion designers and sneakers made for celebrities and sports heroes.

On walking in to Out of the Box, I realized that this installation looked quite unlike any other I had seen at the Bata (and there have been many beautifully designed exhibits at the Museum).  For this exhibition, the Bata took on another first for them and hired famed industrial designer Karim Rashid.  Rashid  created a very modern style for the exhibition with blasts of colour against a predominantly white background.  Rashid describes his approach:

The design of the exhibition reinforces the leaps and bounds made by the sneaker and its place within the flux, speed, and charge of society.

Photograph of the exhibit installation designed by Karim Rashid.  Photo copyright Bata Shoe Museums

Photograph of the exhibit installation designed by Karim Rashid. Photo copyright 2013 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada.

The exhibit’s design has immediate impact, creating an environment that expresses the exhibit’s content boldly but not literally. Central circular cases, each with a single shoe or pair of shoes, achieve that often-sought quality of museum design – creating a compelling environment, but not competing with the collection.  That perennial 20th-century museological conundrum — how much text is too much — is neatly solved with searchable historical and technical information provided via flat-screen TVs that take the place of overview text.

When selecting topics for a temporary exhibit program, the question of who will provide grants or sponsorship always arises. For Out of the Box The Museum’s media release concludes with 19 logos (government granting agencies, opening reception sponsors, media partners, hotel and community partners, and a programming partner).   Clearly, this topic has attracted funding.  The funders are likely responding to the exhibition’s multi-facetted take within its singular topic.  Interpretation and artifacts in the exhibit would resonate with:

  • social historians
  • fashionistas
  • sports fans
  • designers
  • celebrity watchers

Not many museums have sneakers in their collections and so what can we see in this exhibition that applies to exhibit programs in other museums?  With Out of the Box, we can see a temporary exhibition taking a simple, everyday typological category, exploring it from many vantage points, finding contemporary expressions, placing the collections in a dynamic physical space — and making an impact.

The exhibition continues to March 30th 2014 and is accompanied by a wide range of programming described on the Museum’s website.  Here are some of my favourite sneakers in the show.  All images shown are copyright 2013 Bata Shoe Museum, Toronto, Canada.