the bata shoe museum and the centering of the western experience

I’m in North America at the moment, having a grand old time, visiting museums and eating at vegan restaurants and buying more things than I should. Last week I visited the Bata Shoe Museum in Toronto, which has a lot of shoes, and some interesting curation notes, including the one notation about Australia, which I have in part transcribed for you. Only in part because my photo didn’t really turn out, but you get the gist:

Among the indigenous people of Central Australia a Kurdaicha is a respected elder … the spiritual power to execute a transgressor. With this ability, the Kurdaicha is able to … with a pointing stick and secretly send some of the energy to the transgressor that will kill. The shoes the Kurdaitcha wears are … constructed out of emu feathers and kangaroo hair.

The museum was fun, but it was all like this. A complete disrespect of indigenous people, and non-European histories.

Deerskin slippers made by Wendat women in Canada impressed visitors at the Universal Exhibition in 1855. These deerskin vamps are decorated with very fine moose hair in a floral pattern appealing to the Western market.

Some questions one might ask:

  • Central Australia is pretty big and filled with a number of peoples. Is there any one peoples in particular this tradition belongs to?
  • How did you get these shoes, museum? Did some coloniser steal them?
  • I’m so glad the slippers impressed visitors! WHY ARE WE CENTRING THE WESTERN EXPERIENCE?
  • How did you get these slippers?

I love museums so much. But other problems this museum had: outdated names for indigenous Canadian nations and peoples, and a general lack of specificity around a number of cultures and countries. This is hardly a unique problem; it’s just disappointing. The colonial gaze is prioritised, and the voices of those whose lands we’ve stolen are smushed together and silenced. Great. Good job.


Other things at the museum: the family behind me who looked at the lotus flower shoes and said “Are these for a child? These must be for a child” despite the notes on bound feet right there; learning about crinoline fire death; the chestnut crushing clog; and the smuggler’s clog, that looks like it’s stepping in the reverse direction.