Fit for a Museum

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Four museums where breathtaking, one-of-a-kind shoes are put on pedestals--right where they belong

Canada: Bata Shoe Museum

What you'll find: Twelve thousand shoes occupy four floors of cross-cultural exhibits--from ancient Egyptian sandals to ornate Chinese shoes used in foot binding. Current exhibit: "Icons of Elegance: The Most Influential Shoe Designers of the 20th Century," showcasing works by Salvatore Ferragamo, Roger Vivier, and Manolo Blahnik (through August).

Curator's choice: "A pair of Mojaris that was owned by the Nizam of Hyderabad between 1790 and 1800," says curator Elizabeth Semmelhack. "They're completely encrusted with gold thread, diamonds, and rubies--too heavy to wear, but a marvel of the extraordinary."

In the gift shop: A rhinestone-encrusted pie server with a stiletto heel magnetically attached to the handle ($12). 327 Bloor St. West, Toronto, 416/979-7799, batashoemuseum.ca, $7

England: Northampton Museum

What you'll find: wo galleries have 12,000 notable shoes and shoemaking artifacts collected over the past 140 years. Some highlights: a boot made for an elephant, and stilts in the shape of Doc Martens that were worn by Elton John. Current exhibit: "Africa Adorned," featuring African footwear and jewelry with especially detailed beadwork (June 16--July 23).

Curator's choice: "A pair of quirky red leather stilettos from the 1960s," says Rebecca Shawcross. "The company that produced them added little wheels onto the stilettos. They're called wheel-heels. Needless to say, they were quite short-lived."

In the gift shop: Wooden shoe lasts that double as bookends, paperweights, and candlestick holders (from $14). Guildhall Rd., Northampton, 011-44/1604-838-111, www.northampton.gov.uk/museums, free

Italy: Ferragamo Museum

What you'll find: Exhibits draw from the 10,000-strong Ferragamo collection, with shoes made for Marilyn Monroe and Katharine Hepburn. They're displayed alongside relevant photographs, sketches, and articles. Current exhibit: "Ideas, Models, Inventions," focusing on Ferragamo's design process and featuring his patents and original drawings for concepts such as shoes with interchangeable heels--for example, the 1937 cork wedge (through the summer).

Curator's choice: Museum director Stefania Ricci's favorite is the Invisible Shoe: "The sandal's upper is made from nylon fishing thread."

In the gift shop: A box of postcards with patterns derived from shoes in the museum's collection ($12). Via Tornabuoni 2, Florence, 011-39/055-336-0456, ferragamo.com, free

Germany: German Shoe Museum

What you'll find: The selection of 14,000-plus shoes is paired with displays of historical tools of the trade. Current exhibit: "The Changing of Innocence," an avant-garde installation by Monika Golla with works of art constructed out of Barbie shoes (through September).

Curator's choice: Dr. Rosita Nenno's favorite: "The 'topless,' or sole-only, shoes by Beth Levine, made in 1959. The wearer has to glue the sole onto her foot. It's even possible to dance in them."

In the gift shop: Jan Jansen slippers--black and gray with a big red kiss across the top ($29). Frankfurter Str. 86, Offenbach, 011-49/69-829-7980, ledermuseum.de, $5

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