Why You Should Never Judge a Museum by its Cover

Published 11 August 2016

Angela Griffin

Angela Griffin

I have a confession: I am not a fan of museums. My travels around the globe have taken me to some of the world’s most dynamic cities, filled with centuries of history, fabulous architecture and some truly excellent museums. But after countless visits to art galleries and natural history exhibitions over the years, they’re all starting to, well, blend. Yes, occasionally the quirky ones stand out – I loved the Cumberland Pencil Museum in Keswick and the Cat Museum in Borneo for instance – but these days it takes quite a lot of persuasion to get me into a museum. And perhaps the promise of a good café.

And so, despite visions of a dusty, long-forgotten collection of canoes lined up in glass cases, I went to the Canadian Canoe Museum in Peterborough, Ontario, with an open mind. I might learn something after all.

George in the canoe museum

Our guide, George (image: Angela Griffin)

Meeting our guide

On arrival we met George, our adorable 84-year-old guide and a complete gentleman, with a twinkly smile and an instantly relaxing demeanour. “How long does the tour take?” asked one of the group, clearly anxious that lunchtime was approaching. “How long have you got?” replied George, and we all agreed on 45 minutes. “We’d better get going,” announced George, “there’s a lot to see.”

Glancing around the room, noticing the hundreds of canoes laid out on the floor, attached to the walls and hanging from the ceiling, I couldn’t see how it could take that long, but even so I listened in. George started to explain how the first European settlers in Canada used canoes to explore after borrowing the idea from the native people. Ideal for navigating the country’s lakes, streams and rivers, the open-topped canoe designs haven’t changed much since.

Canoeing on the Madawaska River

Canoeing is a popular pastime in Canada (image: Angela Griffin)

The Canadian obsession with canoes

After almost a week in Canada, I had started to realise just how much the Canadians love their canoes. Here, canoes are a big deal. Canadians compete fiercely to win gold in international canoeing competitions, and have won 24 medals in the sport since it was introduced into the Olympics in 1936. Famous Canadian canoeists such as Bill Mason, who wrote many books on the subject, and Larry Cain, who won Olympic gold in the C-1 500m in 1984 and was subsequently inducted into Canada’s Sports Hall of Fame, are revered and idolised.

Portage sign, Algonquin Provincial Park

Portage sign in Algonquin Provincial Park (image: Angela Griffin)

Not only this, but earlier in the week I’d been told the rather amusing tale of when the G8 Summit was held in a lakeside hotel in Huntsville, Ontario in 2010. A group of Canadian protesters wishing to infiltrate the heavily guarded event could not get in by road, so did what they do best: they attempted to get in by canoe. Chased by police boats, they paddled as far as they could before being stopped, handed a letter destined for the Prime Minister to officials, and then held a press conference in the middle of the lake as the bemused media bobbed about in boats. Only in Canada!

The William and Mary Commanda Canoe

The William and Mary Commanda canoe (image: Angela Griffin)

Canoe stories

Back in the museum, George regaled us with further tales of canoe fans and the lengths they will go to feed their obsession. One particular story involved a lady who had grown up by a lake in rural Ontario in a cottage whose boatshed housed a red canoe. The house had been sold long ago, and now, as an octogenarian, she remembered her days splashing about in the lake as the happiest in her life. Fuelled by the memories, she set about trying to find her canoe, or at least one like it. She had travelled all over Europe and the Americas in search of it and, on arrival to the Canoe Museum, had attempted to describe it to staff. With little information to go on, George had shown her a few possibilities, without success. And then, one particular canoe, a beautifully crafted one in highly polished wood, had caught her eye. She walked over, placed her hand on it and whispered “this is the one,” as her eyes filled with tears. Tears trickled down our own faces as George described his joy at reuniting the lady with her beloved canoe.

Inside the Canadian Canoe Museum

Inside the Canadian Canoe Museum (image: Angela Griffin)

The royal canoes

On a visit to the Canoe Museum in 2006, Prince Andrew was asked what happened to a canoe given to The Queen and Prince Philip by the people of Canada as a wedding present. George chuckled as he told us of Andrew’s reply: “I’ll have to ask my mother.” The museum expected nothing, but lo and behold, sometime later the prince – who also agreed to become the museum’s patron – sent the canoe all the way from England. George showed it to us proudly, and pointed out the scratches on its seats and side that showed obvious signs of use, leading us to wonder if perhaps the queen had been canoeing in the Thames! It was displayed alongside two other royal canoes, one presented to Princess Diana and Prince Charles, and another from Prince Andrew’s own wedding.

Canoe building workshop

Canoe building workshop (image: Angela Griffin)

The importance of the museum

George’s passion for canoes was infectious. He told us of the time he had a kidney operation, and had to recuperate in hospital for 10 days. After four days, the doctors were shocked at his speedy progress and told him he could go home. When they asked him how he recovered so fast, he told them: “It’s the Canoe Museum, they need me to tell the stories of the canoes.” And he was back at work the next day.

Woman with oar ladies toilet sign

Sign on the ladies toilets in the Canadian Canoe Museum (image: Angela Griffin)

We listened, enraptured by George’s tales, and the 45 minutes came and went by unnoticed. George pointed out Bill Mason’s canoe, and a selection of photos of him using it, as well as the buckskin jacket and birch bark canoe that once belonged to Pierre Trudeau, father of Canada’s current Prime Minister. Eventually we reached the final exhibit, a collection of modern racing canoes, and a waterfall whose water was collected from various rivers and lakes across Canada.

George may have said his goodbyes to us, but his stories have stayed with me. Never again will I judge a museum by its cover. The Canadian Canoe Museum was without a doubt the most fascinating museum I’ve been to in a long, long time.

Visit the Canadian Canoe Museum and explore the lakes and forests of Ontario with one of Flight Centre’s Canada Journeys; give our Experts a call today for information and to book.

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