What About a Shelf Life?

lynx trophy head, Frenchman Butte
Lynx, Frenchman Butte, SK

Fossils, guns, antique tractors, stone tools, quilts and clothing items, memorabilia, regalia… The private collections that have launched local museums across the prairies are as unique as the people who created them and the towns that now house them. While many artifacts require little more than a dusting and a Do Not Touch sign, special care and handling are a requirement for others. Some items age well, while others? Not so much.

Take a taxidermy collection. Almost all museums have a mounted bison, elk, moose, deer, or antelope head, and many others have multiple examples of local wildlife and birds. Some even have collections known far and wide for their variety, their excellence, or their humour (see the Madhatters’ Ball photo below). If the taxidermist was a professional, or even a skilled amateur, and the mounts have been taken care of, the odds of a collection still looking impressive are pretty good.

Madhatter's Ball with mounted rabbits
Fuchs Wildlife Gallery, Lloydminster Culture and Science Centre, Lloydminster, SK | Photo by Mike Beauregard for Atlas Obscura

But, when a mount has begun to deteriorate – and there is much that can go wrong – it can be unnerving, or spooky, even stomach-churning for the visitor. The lynx pictured at the top is housed in the Frenchman Butte Museum. The eyes might look a little wonky, but the fur is still beautiful, and the overall shape of the mount remains realistic. It’s not an uncomfortable experience to view it. One collection I visited this past winter though, which will remain nameless, made me wonder why an exhibit would remain on display, when it had obviously passed its ‘best before’ date.

All photos, except where noted, copyright D. MacLeod. All rights reserved.

The Wabasca Canoe

wabasca canoe on display
The Wabasca Canoe display, Frenchman Butte Museum, SK

Many of the pioneer village museums I’ve visited have outdoor exhibit spaces that display their vintage farm equipment and wagons, and their earliest vehicles. The Frenchman Butte Museum is no exception. Their collection is similar to the others, but also includes an interesting item captioned The Wabasca Canoe. And, what I especially liked about it was that its early history of ownership had been recorded, and was now on display.

Constructed by First Nations canoe builders at Wabasca, AB in the 1920s, the canoe was purchased by Wilfred Hunt, a trapper, and possible fur-trader working in the Liard River watershed. It was subsequently sold to Loren Cornell of Kinuso, AB who eventually passed it on to Erven Fester, who donated the canoe to the Frenchman Butte Museum in Saskatchewan.

More from the artifact description:

Hand-made, these lightweight canoes were 12 to 14 feet long. The ribs were hand-carved and steam bent over a frame. Before fur trade days they were covered with birch bark or moose hide… They were used for muskrat trapping, fishing and hunting.

Wabasca is from the Cree word wapuskau, which means white water, and refers to the Wabasca River. Today, the majority of the residents of the hamlet of Wabasca are still Indigenous, and bands of the Bigstone Cree Nation occupy 6 reserves on Treaty 8 territory in northern Alberta. Although, the practice of building traditional birchbark canoes in Canada today can still be a for-profit enterprise, many Indigenous canoe builders are re-learning the craft as part of their journey towards cultural reclamation.

All photos, except where noted, copyright D. MacLeod. All rights reserved.