World's largest museum collection of canoes on the move
Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ont., changing location from former factory to new home on waterfront
It's a portage unlike any other.
Hundreds of canoes belonging to the Canadian Canoe Museum — some as long as a transport trailer — are being moved from their previous location in a former outboard motor factory in Peterborough, Ont., to a new waterfront home three kilometres away.
The museum holds the world's largest collection of paddled watercraft, from birchbark canoes handmade by Indigenous craftspeople to a sleek kayak used in the Olympic Games.
The museum's building for the past 26 years is so cramped that only a portion of the collection could be displayed to the public. That left some 500 canoes languishing in an adjacent warehouse, covered with sheets to protect them from birds that would occasionally fly in through broken windows.
The collection deserves a new home, says the museum's executive director, Carolyn Hyslop.
"There is no other collection like this in the world," Hyslop said in an interview.
"We've been looking for a waterfront home for this collection and a place where the whole collection can be accessible."
That new home is under construction on the edge of Little Lake, near the spot where the canal locks of the Trent-Severn Waterway meet the Otonabee River.
Hyslop says it's a much more appropriate spot for a museum of canoes than the landlocked former factory site. It will allow the museum to offer visitors the chance not just to look at the watercraft but to actually use some on the water.
"They'll be able to canoe right out of the back door of the new museum," said Hyslop.
The museum has designated some of its collection to create a programming fleet, so people can "experience what a birchbark canoe or wood-canvas canoe actually feels like to paddle."
The logistics of moving the 600 canoes to the new location, currently an active construction site, are complex and "a lot of work," says museum curator Jeremy Ward.
"This has been several years of preparation behind us to get the canoes and kayaks ready to be brought here," Ward said during an interview inside the second-floor exhibition hall of the new site.
"Every object has been very carefully inspected, photographed, cleaned and catalogued."
In the past two weeks, staff have moved more than 100 canoes and kayaks. Most were towed on custom-built carriers, hung on straps and lashed down with ropes.
The biggest challenge is moving the largest canoes in the collection, such as Kokomis Tchiman — an eight-metre-long birchbark canoe — made by Marcel Labelle, a Métis elder from Mattawa, Ont.
This week, a crane operator hoisted Kokomis Tchiman into the exhibition hall, where it will be displayed along with a video of Labelle telling the canoe's story.
"Birchbark canoes are, from my perspective, one of the most incredible pieces of engineering," Ward said.
The crew has yet to move Blue Bird, a wooden racing canoe that's 16 metres long, or roughly the length of the flatbed of an 18-wheeler truck. Ward says the trickiest part will be taking it through the streets of Peterborough, particularly turning corners.
Some highlights from the museum's collection that have already been moved to the new site:
- A kayak used by Adam van Koeverden during the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, where he won gold in the K-1 500 metres.
- An Old Town canoe donated by the late Gordon Lightfoot. The singer-songwriter was paddling it on the South Nahanni River in the Northwest Territories in 1980 when it wrapped around a rock, but Lightfoot and his paddling companions recovered it, and the story was later immortalized in the song My Canary Yellow Canoe.
- A Haida dugout canoe made by Victor Adams in Masset, B.C. Carved from a single cedar log, it took three years to build and was completed in 1971, marking a revival in the canoe-building tradition on Haida Gwaii.
"Objects are at their greatest risk when they're being moved, and we are deciding to move every single piece that we're entrusted to care for, all within a matter of months," said Ward.
"There's been a lot of thought, a lot of care, a lot of consideration, and great people brought on to the project to help us do that."
The collection includes canoes from other countries, such as Papua New Guinea, Fiji and Hawaii, some of which have not been exhibited at the previous location due to space constraints and the museum's focus on Canadian items.
"Having the international collection on display at the new museum is a really great way of bringing a broader picture of the context of the canoe," said Hyslop.
The new building's design is inspired by the canoe: long and narrow, with a curved facade and weathered steel exterior. The interior features exposed timber beams and a wood ceiling in the two-storey atrium that will serve as both the museum's entrance and a venue for special events.
The budget for the new site is $40 million, of which $38 million has been raised. The museum is metaphorically linking the move of its collection to its efforts to reach its fundraising goal, calling the campaign "The Final Portage."
The move itself "does feel very much like a portage," said Ward.
"It's been a long journey for us," he said.
"You know that feeling, if you've done [a portage]. It's not always just the fatigue, but sometimes the discomfort of the crossbar, the thwart bearing into your bones and everything else. But then you get that glimpse of the light peeking through the trees."
The museum is aiming to open in its new location by spring of 2024.