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Museum’s ‘Birchbark’ artifacts begin arriving

Janet Tyson • Jul 21, 2015 at 11:24 AM

Focusing on commercial, familial and cultural interaction between native tribes and French traders, the display is drawing on loans from six North American institutions. A total of about 100 objects will be shown at the museum, 200 Washington Ave. in downtown Grand Haven.

The items from Texas were salvaged from La Belle, the ship commanded by Robert Cavelier (Sieur de La Salle) — who explored the Great Lakes, Mississippi River and Gulf of Mexico during the 17th century. Artifacts from the La Belle comprise one of three segments of the exhibition.

The other two segments are devoted to the fur trade, which played an important role in the history of the Grand Haven area, and to the role of women in commerce and culture.

The artifacts from La Belle fall into five categories: personal objects that belonged to members of the ship’s crew; trade items for bartering with native tribes; supplies and tools for the colonies that Cavelier hoped to establish near the Gulf Coast; arms and munitions for sailors and colonists; and navigation and ship’s objects, which were used day-to-day on the La Belle.

“We said we wanted examples from each of the categories that the museum had listed on its website,” said Ken Pott, the museum’s executive director.

Selecting items for display is only one of many steps in the process of putting together an exhibition, he added, “but it’s exciting to see it all come together.”

Artifacts from the La Belle include the ship’s rigging, pewter plates, tiny brass hawking bells that natives used for decorating garments, a comb with two sets of teeth, two large cast-iron spear tips called pole arms and an incendiary device called a firepot.

The comb is one of 12 that were earmarked for trade with natives. It was carved from finely grained wood, with large teeth for untangling hair and fine teeth for removing nits (the eggs of head lice).

Made from clay, the firepot held oil and an iron ball filled with gunpowder, and was fitted with a wooden stopper which secured the wick. When lit and thrown, the clay would shatter and the fire would ignite both oil and gunpowder, causing the iron ball to explode.

The museum is also presenting “Lewis Cross: A Life on the Grand” on the Akeley Building mezzanine. Cross’ paintings of Grand River scenes are shown in conjunction with an exhibit of contemporary Grand River images at the Gallery Uptown, 201 Washington Ave. Both presentations open Friday with public receptions from 5-8 p.m.

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