Wave EatersConservation of a Kayak

Caroline Marchand
Technical Services and Conservation
Canadian Museum of Civilization

Until the mid-20th century sleds and kayaks were essential to the survival of the Arctic people. In the summer men went out in their kayaks to hunt for food for their families. A hunter had to have a kayak and know how to use it before he could take a wife and start a family. Because of the kayak's vital significance in Arctic life, it was a mythical object which was treated with great care. It was custom-made for each hunter, who supervised its construction.

Although the kayak was common to all the Arctic people, its design and use varied according to the needs and environment of each group. Around Coronation Gulf, in the centre of the Canadian Arctic, the Copper Inuit, named for their use of native copper, used kayaks for caribou hunting or crossing bays and lakes.

The Canadian Museum of Civilization has only two examples of Copper Inuit kayaks. A small kayak appears to have been made for a child. The other kayak is very large and was acquired for the museum between 1913 and 1916 by Diamond JENNESS, an ethnologist who was adopted by a Copper Inuit couple. In 1993-1994, it was part of the exhibition Diamond JENNESS and the Inuit, which illustrated the contribution JENNESS made to the field of anthropology and to our knowledge of the Arctic peoples.

This particular kayak was in extremely poor condition due to its use, its storage in temporary buildings which had no environmental controls, and an unsympathetic restoration which was carried out in 1965. The skin of the kayak had to be conserved not only to improve its appearance but also to improve its overall stability and strength. Extensive conservation was now possible because the kayak had been moved to the Canadian Museum of Civilization's new building which maintains a stable display and storage environment.

Following the JENNESS exhibition, this kayak was selected for another Museum exhibition, Wave Eaters, Native Watercraft in Canada. No further treatment has been necessary, thanks to its stable display and storage environment of 50% relative humidity with minimal fluctuations of 1-2%.

The links below illustrate the different stages of the overall treatment and provide details of the various techniques employed.