Saturday, April 6, 2013

Canadian Canoe Museum: Hands-On with Heritage

Birchbark exhibit at the Canadian Canoe Museum
With more than 600 canoes from around the world and in every era of innovation, the Canadian Canoe Museum  in Peterborough, Ontario, is the world's largest collection. Yet what drew me to spend three weeks of this incredible journey at the Museum was its global role in the idea of the canoe. The museum is not some mausoleum for dusty artifacts, it is a hands-on experience with heritage, culture and identity, while acting as a nexus for community of all walks to celebrate what the canoe is and what it represents.

Storehouse at the Museum for canoes not on display

In essence, the museum is keeping some very important things alive, while making it a fun experience. What else could one want: spending time studying the impressive collection of bark, skin and dugout canoes while also learning from the knowledgable community members who walk through the door.
In what other museum can you try on clothes of ancient traders, make snow shoes, learn to carve a paddle, or go fishing, right in the lobby!?

Jeremy Ward, observing old bows found next to a nearly 300 year old bark canoe.

I am spending a lot of my time at the museum learning from Jeremy Ward, curator of the museum and canoe builder in his own right (having built a voyageur bark canoe as an exhibit!). His articulate voice and enthusiasm is inspiring, radiating the importance of the work. He and the museum are helping me give context to my work, understanding each tradition in a broader historical and practical sense. Again, I am constantly reminded of how little I know and it inspires me to work harder.

Figuring out how to steam bend a fasten for a basket repair

Right amongst the exhibitions there is a workshop where volunteer artisans restore canoes and artifacts. This workshop is used for teaching skills and keeping the canoes in good shape. When I am not researching my millions of questions or starring at the wonderful craft, I'll be making a few things in the workshop, expanding what little I know about the canoe world.

Sizing a Pacific North West paddle to make a replica

As Jeremy said "once you have lost the stories behind the canoes, you can't replace them" and each of these stories, whether an ancient Arctic kayak revealing a tale of survival, or a famous tripping canoe representing the Canadian love for nature in wilderness, are important to who we are and what we have yet to learn. Walking through the store house Jeremy made me realize how important these collections are. Looking back at the hundreds of canoes, each with their own story, he slowly said, "these stories are conversing with each other in here", portraying the complex evolution of our species, our nations, and our ideas.

The Museum is looking to expand to a new and better location along the river in this historic canoe building town of Peterborough. They need all the help they can get to make the dream come true. I HIGHLY recommend taking part and joining the community any way you can. Lauren and I joined the Adopt-a-Canoe program, a fun and easy way to support the mission and to take some responsibility for a canoe on collection. We supported the unique Kutenai canoe, made from Balsam bark. Its sturgeon nose tip, the only one on collection jumped out to both of us.

The well-lit bow of a Malecite canoe.

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