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New museum exhibit to detail history of area’s fur trade

Janet Tyson • Jul 21, 2015 at 11:21 AM

Everyday objects — ranging from thimbles to forks; as well as a selection of weaponry, trade materials and a contemporary birchbark canoe — will be shown along with about 45 artifacts from the Belle, the ship commanded by the 17th-century French explorer Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle. The exhibit will cover a span of nearly 300 years — from the early 1600s through the late 1800s.

“The Grand Haven area was a Western terminus of the Great Lakes fur trade,” said Ken Pott, director of the museum at 200 Washington Ave. in downtown Grand Haven. “The Ottawa peoples in this area were a big part of it, interacting with the French.”

The exhibit will have three focal points, including that of the fur trade and its influences on the region. The second component addresses the roles played by both Indian and French women, which Pott called significant but little recognized.

The third will focus on the Belle, which wrecked off the Texas coast in 1687 when La Salle attempted to establish a colony there, linked to the Great Lakes via the Mississippi River. The wreck was rediscovered in 1995, and is in the process of being researched and conserved.

Pott said the exhibition offers an important opportunity for the museum to collaborate with area institutions — including primary and secondary schools in the Tri-Cities, and Loutit and Spring Lake district libraries. With that in mind, Nancy Buchanan, the museum’s curator of education, is working with area teachers to create packets of information that can be used prior to and after students see “Birchbark and Bateaux,” and will help students connect what they see in the exhibit with things and experiences in their own daily lives.

The museum also plans to market “Birchbark and Bateaux” as a special summer tourism attraction.

In order to obtain artifacts for displays and speakers for several public programs, museum staff is working with Western Michigan University, the state of Michigan and the Texas Historical Commission.

Steven Radtke, the museum’s curator of exhibitions, said “Birchbark and Bateaux” presents a more diverse picture of cultures in this part of West Michigan. An example of the cultural exchange between the French and Indians is found in the exhibition’s title.

“Birchbark” of course refers to the lightweight Native American canoes, which women helped make to serve a variety of purposes. The French traded for canoes and adapted large war canoes for transporting cargo.

“Bateaux” is the plural form of the French word for boat; but it also refers to a particular canoe-like craft, built from wood planks. Canoes were particularly useful for inland travel because they could be portaged from river to river with relative ease. The much heavier wooden boats were used for travel on the Great Lakes.

Pott said copies of paintings and drawings by period artists Frances Anne Hopkins and George Winter will also be featured. Their art includes several portraits of French and Indian traders and their families.

Pott also announced two other upcoming exhibits.

Opening on the museum mezzanine in March, “Art Inspired by the Grand River” will feature works by the late Spring Lake naturalist/artist Lewis Lumen Cross. The installation will complement the “Seasons on the Grand” group exhibition at the Gallery Uptown, across the street from the museum at 201 Washington Ave.

Later in the year, the museum will host a traveling exhibition about Michigan during the Ice Age.

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