Canoe Goes Upriver, Without Its Paddlers (Museum Exhibit)

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The canoe is coming back to its home at the American Museum of Natural History. But the Indians won’t be paddling it anymore.

The colossal Haida canoe populated with 17 painted plaster Northwest Coast Indians had been a fixture of the museum’s West 77th Street halls for so long — almost a century — that the life-size Indians themselves acquired their own kind of historical significance.

But this year, workers removing decades of grime from the canoe discovered just how much a good cleaning enhanced the beauty of its original paintings, of an eagle and a killer whale.

So now the 63-foot-long canoe will be exhibited as it originally was in 1883: hanging from the ceiling. The paintings will be in full view 15 feet from the floor, but up in the air, the Indians would be barely visible. So they are not coming back.

The Indian sculptures “were accurate,” said Peter M. Whiteley, the museum’s curator of North American ethnology. “But the figures were composites of different tribes. We thought it was time to celebrate the beauty and ethnographic value of the canoe itself.”

The restored canoe will be revealed to the public on Friday, as a symbol of the $37 million restoration of the southern facade and entranceway of the museum. The canoe will henceforth be the ornament of the museum’s new 77th Street entrance, to be known as the Grand Gallery, a gateway to the museum’s 1877 Hall of Northwest Coast Indians, the oldest of the building’s 25 interconnected structures.

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