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The Great Canoe in the Grand Gallery

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On Exhibit posts

The special exhibition Whales: Giants of the Deep, on view through January 5, offers a unique opportunity to highlight a variety of whale-inspired artifacts on permanent display throughout the Museum. One of the most striking examples practically hides in plain sight: a massive killer whale painted on the prow of the 63-foot-long Great Canoe exhibited in the Grand Gallery on the Museum’s first floor.


The stylized killer whale was likely painted by one of the most influential Haida artists of his time, Charles Edenshaw (1839–1920), according to Peter Whiteley, curator of North American Ethnology in the Division of Anthropology.

The canoe itself was made from a single Western red cedar tree around 1878, and may have been used as a dowry payment. Oral traditions link it to both the Heiltsuk and Haida peoples, with stories suggesting it was at first unadorned, with the killer whale, raven, and figurehead sculpture of a sea wolf added later. Animal images figure heavily in Haida art and mythology with specific animals on Haida objects serving as crests, identifying the lineage of the owner. The killer whale is an especially popular crest. The canoe was acquired for the Museum by Trustee Heber Bishop as part of the larger Bishop-Powell collection in 1881. 

Native people delivered the purchased canoe to Victoria, British Columbia, where it began a lengthy journey to New York.

First, it traveled by schooner to Port Townsend, Washington, then by steamer to Panama, via San Francisco. Since the Panama Canal had not yet been built, the canoe crossed the isthmus by rail, arriving in New York City by ship in 1883. A horse-drawn dray delivered it to the Museum, where it was put on display shortly after its arrival. The canoe was first hung from the ceiling beside the balcony that is now the Leonard C. Sanford Hall of North American Birds, high above a bird collection in what is today the Hall of African Peoples. The canoe was installed two years later at floor level in the Hall of Northwest Coast Indians (formerly called the North Pacific Hall).

1919 Great Canoe North Pacific Hall
The Great Canoe in the North Pacific Hall in 1919
© AMNH 37672

In 1960, it was moved about 100 feet to the 77th Street foyer, also at floor level. 

1962 Great Canoe in Grand Gallery with Figures
The Great Canoe was moved to the 77th Street foyer in 1960. This photograph dates from 1962.
© AMNH 328834

Life-sized figures were added to the canoe in 1910 but removed to storage during a 2006 restoration, returning the canoe to its original mode of display: suspended and empty.

Great Canoe with visitors
The Great Canoe as seen today
© AMNH/R. Mickens

This post is adapted from an article in the Fall 2013 issue of Rotunda, the Member magazine.