The Berkshire Museum houses a permanent collection of over 40,000 works of art and artifacts. As caretakers of this collection, we take great strides to conserve and preserve the items to make sure that they will be available to educate and engage people for decades to come.
At times artifacts from our collection have damage and require restoration work. To keep our collection in safe and stable conditions we work with experts in the field to identify the best course of action, and the best team of people to work on the item. What follows is an account of a canoe from our collection that is currently undergoing restoration work to illustrate the process.
What is being restored?
A canoe of birchbark with wooden ribs and thwarts from the Maliseet or Wolastoqiyik people of New Brunswick and Quebec in Canada, and Maine in the United States. The Maliseet tribe, along with the Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, Micmac, and Abenaki, belonged to the confederation of American Indians known as the Wabanaki Alliance. Their traditional homelands were along the St. John’s River valley and they are well-known for their birchbark canoes, which they used for fishing and travel. For more resources on the Maliseet click here.
Steve Cayard writes of this type of canoe:
“Over thousands of years of living and traveling on the ocean and inland waterways of what we now call Maine and the Maritime Provinces, the Wabanaki people developed a highly evolved, perfectly adapted type of birchbark canoe for this area. Wabanaki, or “People of the Dawnland,” is the collective designation given to the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Maliseet, Mi’kmaq, and Abenaki tribes. Historically, many of them spent at least part of their time on the seacoast, especially before European contact.
Accordingly, the hulls of their canoes were very seaworthy, designed for maximum buoyancy in the ends and reserve buoyancy in the sides, for use in rough water conditions. They had canoes built specifically for ocean use, with greater depth and rocker than in canoes used primarily on fresh water. Yet even river and lake canoes retained the basic hull-form of the ocean canoes, because any of them could and would at times be taken downriver to salt water on occasion.”
Who is restoring it?
Steve Cayard, a canoe builder of Wellington Maine. Cayard builds birchbark canoes in the traditional style of the Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, and Maliseet builders of Maine and New Brunswick from the early- to mid-1800s. He works to contribute to the revival of the traditional canoe style of Maine and the Canadian maritime provinces, in which, until recently, there have been few if any birchbark canoe builders since the 1920s. He has been studying birchbark canoes since he was 16 and building them in Maine since 1995. To learn more visit his website: www.stevecayard.com
The Restoration Process
Steve Cayard and a team of boatbuilders are concentrating on damaged areas of the canoe (which include cracked wood, broken stitching, and flaking and cracked bark), which need to be repaired in order to restore its strength and structural integrity and prevent further deterioration. Their goal is to return the appearance of the canoe to its original state as nearly as possible while keeping added materials to a minimum. They will also be consulting with a conservator as the project progresses, who can help them determine best courses of action based on conservation standards. Here’s a look at what’s been done so far:
Setting the canoe up in a tent for humidification
Rib numbering and removal
Repairing the wooden gunwale
Bow repairs including bracing for clamping, clamping in place, and a view of the new pieces added to which will be be painted to match later.
Reinstallation of ribs and planking.
A Mysterious Comb
During the work, the boat-builders discovered this comb hidden within the canoe. It is plastic with a sterling silver sheath. Its origins are a mystery to us and now we’ve got another artifact research!