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Each year, the Ontario Museum Association puts on a conference where those of us in the business, and those who would like to be in the business, gather to talk about the professional issues of the day. The theme for 2013 is “Culture: Taking Charge.” I’ve been asked to be a panelist in a session called “Paradigm Shifts: The Challenge of Doing Things Differently.” The panelists have been asked to think about a major change, issue or crisis that has confronted their institution and reflect on how they dealt with it.

Two challenges came immediately to mind for the Canadian Canoe Museum, and the more I thought about them the more they seemed to be related.

Challenge #1: Our collection of more than 600 canoes, kayaks and watercraft is national in scope and includes watercraft from every province and territory. Our ambitions are also national in scope, and we want to be engaged with Canadians and visitors across the country. One typical way to do this is through membership. But, one of the benefits of membership in a museum is often free admission. How does that work if you live 1500km away from the institution? Is there a way to deliver enough value to members to make it worthwhile to join even if they never visit in person?

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Each summer for the past 34 years, members of the Wooden Canoe Heritage Association have gathered for their annual assembly. For many of those years, the Assembly has been held on the beautiful lakefront campus of Paul Smith’s College in the Adirondack area of upstate New York.

Earlier this year, the WCHA and the Canoe Museum decided to work together to support canoeing heritage by offering the members of each organization a year of free membership in the other. To promote this new initiative and get to know the WCHA better, I spent three days at this year’s assembly, which was once again held at Paul Smith’s College.

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Every so often, we come across a canoe here at the Museum that raises more questions than it answers. Last summer, a donor brought this interesting boat to our attention.

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Here’s what stood out for us when we first looked at it:

  • It is very lightly built, almost more like a rowing shell than a canoe, with a 1/8″ veneer hull and sawn frame/batten seam construction;
  • It once had fabric decks, and there are still scraps of varnished linen attached to some of the deckbeams;
  • The cockpit area has a very wide, flaring coaming that adds several inches to the boat’s beam; and
  • It was probably used for flatwater sprint racing.

What we didn’t know was what class or type of canoe it was.

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Every year at this time we move into high gear developing a new temporary exhibit for our McLean-Matthews Gallery. This year’s show is playfully called “Canoes to Go: The Search for a Truly Portable Boat”.

Foldable, collapsible, sectional or inflatable: these are some of the principals used in making a full-sized canoe or kayak small enough to fit into a baggage compartment or a bushplane or a backpack. While researching for this exhibit, we’ve encountered all sorts of fascinating and unexpected characters and events. I’m intending to share one or two more stories over the coming weeks and certainly hope that you are able to join us for the exhibit’s opening on the night of our Annual General Meeting, April 25th, 2012 or thereafter.

The Halkett Boat-Cloak

Several years ago our general manager John Summers acquired a reprint for a 1840s manuscript that described in illustrated detail the invention of an extraordinary, if ridiculous, waterproof raincoat.  This marvelous garment could be removed from the shoulders of an adventurous spirit and inflated by bellows conveniently located in one pocket. This quickly transformed it into a vessel ready to carry him away. How to propel you ask? Imagine then, our intrepid explorer removing from his cloak’s other pocket the blade of a paddle that could be threaded onto the tip of his walking stick. If lucky and the wind was right, a modified Englishman’s umbrella could also be used as a sail and the once-thwarted adventurer could continue in his adventuresome way. Read the rest of this entry »

Now I’ll be the first to admit that the delightful word “Canoodling” doesn’t strictly speaking have anything to do with canoes. Of obscure origin, possibly an english dialect word meaning “foolish lover,” the first recorded use was in 1859. But Valentine’s Day is coming up fast, so putting etymology aside for the moment, it’s an evocative way to introduce all of the romantic associations of canoes. In the latter years of the 19th century and the early years of the 20th, a canoe offered sweethearts a pleasant and chaperone-free means to be alone for a time. Almost any waterfront park had a canoe livery where couples could get on the water and escape prying eyes and ears.

As well as being a vehicle for lovers, the canoe is also a theme for romance, and you don’t have to look very far, or spend much time at all on ebay, to come up with images like this Valentine’s postcard, mailed in 1911 to one Miss Ermina Evertts of Wellsburg, NY.  Our young lady has just burst through a large paper heart in her birchbark canoe, heavily loaded with a cargo of flowers. Perhaps she ran into the heart because she was too busy reading the book on her lap instead of looking where she was paddling? She also appears to have put on her makeup in the dark, or at least her lipstick. Best of all though is the heart pierced by cupid’s arrow that hangs from a dainty ribbon on the right side of the card.

It’s still a little cold for real canoeing, at least here in Peterborough where there’s ice on the river, but this February 14th we can at least go for a paddle in our hearts. Happy Valentine’s Day from the Canadian Canoe Museum.