The American Museum of Natural History Moves Its Great Canoe—for the First Time in 60 Years—to Its Revitalized Northwest Coast Hall

From left to right: Kaa-xoo-auxc (Garfield George), Jisgang (Nika Collison), Megan Humchitt, Haa’yuups (Ron Hamilton), and Chief Wigviłba Wákas (Harvey Humchitt) performing traditional ceremony before the move of the Great Canoe at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
From left to right: Kaa-xoo-auxc (Garfield George), Jisgang (Nika Collison), Megan Humchitt, Haa’yuups (Ron Hamilton), and Chief Wigviłba Wákas (Harvey Humchitt) performing traditional ceremony before the move of the Great Canoe at the American Museum of Natural History in New York.
©AMNH/D. Finnin

The Great Canoe at New York City's American Museum of Natural History is one of the largest dugout canoes on Earth. Suspended from the ceiling of the Grand Gallery, it appeared weightless. Visitors entering from 77th Street may have assumed the canoe was built for the space, like the museum's massive blue whale model. But the real history of the vessel can be traced back 150 years to the Pacific Northwest. Now, as the artifact moves locations for the first time in 60 years, AMNH is working with First Nations advisors to strengthen the connections between the new exhibit and its past.

On January 28, 2020, the Great Canoe was rolled in a custom cradle from the Grand Gallery to the neighboring Northwest Coast Hall. Design elements of the Great Canoe indicate it came from the Heiltsuk and Haida nations on Canada's Pacific coast, but the identities of its builders and many other details of its construction remain a mystery. A group of representatives from First Nation communities in British Columbia kicked off the event with traditional song and prayer. They concluded the ceremony by circling the boat and blowing tufts of eagle down over it. The Indigenous representatives then explained the significance of canoes to all First Nations in the region.

"Canoes are absolutely central to the cultures of all the people who are represented here today," Nuu-chah-nulth artist and cultural historian Haa'yuups, or Ron Hamilton, who's co-curating the renovation of the Northwest Coast Hall, said. "All of our people made their livings not long ago in and out of the sea [...] From birth until death, our people lived in and out of canoes."

©AMNH/M. Shanley

Even to cultures built around sea travel, the canoe at AMNH is exceptional. It measures 63 feet long and was dug out of a single Western red cedar tree. The body was carved in the 1870s, and it's possible that the orca and raven illustrations and the seawolf figurehead were added after its initial construction. AMNH trustee Heber Bishop acquired the piece for the museum in the late 19th century, and following a journey that included travel on a ship, train, and horse-drawn carriage, it arrived in New York in 1883. The Great Canoe was displayed in the Northwest Coast Hall from 1899 to 1960, when it was moved to the Grand Gallery where it resided most recently. January's move marks the boat's return to the hall after a six-decade absence.

The relocation is part of the museum's two-and-a-half-year revitalization of the Northwest Coast Hall. The exhibit includes hundreds of objects and nearly a dozen totem poles, all of which originate from the same general region of the world as the canoe. Like the canoe, the stories of many of these artifacts have been lost or misinterpreted over the years—largely because none of their original owners were involved in getting them onto the museum floor.

AMNH is determined not to repeat the mistakes of the past with this new project. By seeking the counsel of 10 First Nation advisors, each coming from a different nation represented in the hall, the museum hopes to reflect their cultures in a rich, accurate light. "[Collaboration] is something we definitely try to encourage, specifically in relation to conservation," museum curator of North American ethnology Peter Whitely tells Mental Floss. "We really want it to be a participatory collaboration, because long-term, it's our responsibility to these communities to continue a pattern of mutual engagement."

From left to right: Jisgang (Nika Collison), Haa’yuups (Ron Hamilton), Kaa-xoo-auxc (Garfield George), Chief Wigviłba Wákas (Harvey Humchitt), and Judith Levenson in the Objects Conservation Laboratory at the American Museum of Natural History.
©AMNH/D. Finnin

Jisang, or Nika Collison, of the Ts'aah clan of the Haida Nation, spoke of her role as advisor following the canoe move ceremony. The museum sends her digital images of the artifacts being restored—that way, when she's home, she can consult with other members of her community and dig up context for each piece. "We get these great big files with these digital photos so you can go home and work with the carvers or the weavers that know things," she said. One photo she received showed a wolf mask missing its ears: "My brother was going through it, and he said, 'I think I found the ears,' because they were labeled as a separate piece."

The Northwest Coast Hall is currently closed for the revitalization effort, and in 2021, it will reopen with the Great Canoe in its new position suspended from the ceiling. In the meantime, advisors will continue working with the museum to update the collection. "We’re putting our treasures back together," Collison said, "because that’s the history of museums, that a lot of things came in without our knowledge to go along with it."

The Mental Floss Store Is Back!

Mental Floss Store
Mental Floss Store

You've been asking about it for months, and today we can finally confirm that the Mental Floss Store is back up and running! Simply head here to find dozens of T-shirts with all sorts of unique designs to choose from, whether you’re in the market for a pi pun, a risqué grammar joke, or something only your fellow bookworms will appreciate. You can even use your new Mental Floss shirt to teach your friends all about scurvy.

Mental Floss Store

If you’re just in the mood to express your love of all things Mental Floss, you can also get our darling little logo on phone cases, tote bags, mugs, baby bibs, and more.

Mental Floss Store

Head on over to the Mental Floss Store to see our entire collection. And if you use the code FLOSSERS at checkout by end of day Sunday, you'll get 20 percent off your order. 

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

From Campaign Slogans to Social Movements, New Book Explores the Role Buttons Have Played Throughout History

Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon
Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

From their early days on the campaign trail during the 1896 presidential race to their current role as a way of showing support for social causes like the LGBTQIA+ pride movement, pinback buttons have remained one of the most popular ways for people to express their values and beliefs for well over a century. And now, button experts Christen Carter, founder of Chicago’s Busy Beaver Button Company and the Button Museum, and Ted Hake, owner of Hake’s Auctions, have put their extensive knowledge of the subject into the new book Button Power: 125 Years of Saying It With Buttons ($25), a cultural journey showcasing 1500 of the most important and unique pinbacks throughout American history.

“Buttons seem like really a niche thing, but they really are very general,” Carter tells Mental Floss. “They cover so much history, and the history goes deep and wide.”

For the book, Hake and Carter—who both began collecting buttons during their respective childhoods—cover how buttons have been used to communicate messages during their 125-year history, from pinbacks featuring landmark political slogans and anti-war sentiments to others that simply proclaim a person's love of Dallas.

“[Buttons] are little windows on the world, and you can pick an avenue and head down to your heart's content,” Hake tells Mental Floss.

Some of the 20th century's most important moments had a button to go along with them.Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

One of Hake's favorite buttons in the book doesn't feature a political or social statement—it's just a picture of a buffalo with the words “Eat Me at Bremen, Kans. June 9, 1935” emblazoned across it. But it wasn't just the design that really caught his attention; it was also its backstory.

The button's origins lie within the town of Bremen, Kansas, which, in June 1935, was celebrating both its 50th anniversary and the dedication of a marker for the defunct Oregon Trail, according to Kansas Historical Quarterly. Two weeks before the celebration, 500 townspeople gathered in Bremen to watch a buffalo get slaughtered, which was then shipped to the neighboring town’s ice house for preservation. When the big day finally arrived, the buffalo was shipped back to become the centerpiece of a community-wide feast. The button was made to spread the word for the unique event.

“Here he is on this button, inviting the good folks of Bremen to enjoy him,” Hake says. “So it is a little bit surreal, to tell you the truth.” During his research, Hake recovered this niche historical event that could’ve otherwise been easily lost to history. “At the end of the day, they capped it off with supper, a band concert, and they gave away a baby buffalo calf,” he says.

Buttons have been used to express both support and opposition to the United States's involvement in wars. Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

While pinback button technology has not changed drastically in the past 125 years, Hake and Carter still consider their golden era to be from 1896 to 1921. “The colors are just unusual and beautiful,” Carter says. “They were able to get fine details that, [even] with digital printing, we can’t do.” Carter also enjoys how buttons were used as a communication device during the punk movement, saying, “They're important identifiers to a counter-culture movement, and they were not afraid to piss people off.”

Though the book covers buttons featuring celebrities, bands, and brands, many of the most popular ones come from the political arena and sports. Hake’s Auction just set the record for the most expensive pinback sold on September 23, 2020, with a 1916 Boston Red Sox World Series button that went for $62,980. “What makes it great is that every team member is on the button and up at 11 o’clock is one Babe Ruth. He was in his second year and was a pitcher back in those days,” Hake explains.

Even though there are buttons like the Babe Ruth ones that sell for thousands of dollars, it's still an accessible hobby for everyone. “You can start your button collection with just $10 and already have a good start. It is a good thing to collect if you don’t have much money or much space,” Carter explains.

The power of the political button eventually became fertile ground for satire in the '70s.Princeton Architectural Press/Amazon

Looking forward to the next 125 years, Carter hopes that buttons can become more eco-friendly by eliminating steel use and replacing it with recycled materials. “They haven’t changed that much in the last 125 years. They are pretty timeless in that way, and they are inexpensive, so whatever keeps them as inexpensive as possible as resources change in the next 100 years, they will probably change."

You can order Button Power: 125 Years of Saying It With Buttons on Amazon or on the Princeton Architectural Press website.

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.