Monday, 8 February 2016

TRACKS THROUGH TIME: STUDYING THE MATERIAL HERITAGE OF SNOWSHOES

RESEARCH COLUMN

BY: INDIA BURCHELL

During fall semester last year, I got to undertake an exciting research project for our program’s course Museums and Indigenous Communities. Our task was to carry out research on a particular material culture made by an Indigenous community. I decided on snowshoes because coming from England where there is hardly ever any snow, I was curious to find out more about them. Two of my main research questions were: “what is the background and cultural significance of snowshoes for Indigenous communities?” and “in what ways are museums with snowshoes in their collections engaging visitors?”

Background and cultural significance:
In both Europe and Canada, the craft of making snowshoes has been practiced by Indigenous communities for centuries, with one pair dating as far back as 5,300 years ago. The production of snowshoes has cultural significance for the communities because the techniques involved have been passed down through many generations. The shapes, which have not changed much since their origins, not only connect communities with their forefathers, but also signify a connection with nature. For example, a bearpaw, swallowtail or beavertail are all snowshoes that are similar shapes to the animal body parts after which they are named. The ‘bearpaw’ style of snowshoe is designed to mimic the characteristics of a bear’s foot so that the wearer can easily walk on top of the snow. A critical issue in the making of snowshoes is that industrially manufactured snowshoes differ from traditional ones in both design and the processes used to make them. The impact of this change is that the traditional techniques and the involvement of the whole community to make the snowshoes are at risk of becoming forgotten. Traditionally, the practice of making snowshoes had significance as the community came together and remembered their ancestors through the practice of the craft – a practice which is at risk of being lost as the manufacture of snowshoes becomes industrialized.

Bearpaw snowshoes. Source.

Beavertail snowshoes. Source.


There is some evidence of different indigenous communities across Canada adapting snowshoe designs to their local environment. For example, the bearpaw snowshoe originated from eastern and far northern Canada and is used by the Innu people. Its oval shape makes it great for walking on firmer snow through thick woodland although it does lack speed in thicker snow. The shape of the Huron snowshoe however, is more suited for distance travel in open forests or fields.

Huron snowshoes. Source. 


Snowshoes in museums:
I wanted to think about in what ways museums with snowshoes in their collections are engaging their visitors. This is mainly apparent in exhibitions which incorporate snowshoes into a broader gallery topic. The Royal Ontario Museum has incorporated a panel with a personal story of snowshoes by an Indigenous individual which shows how museums are collaborating with Indigenous Communities to use their knowledge in the exhibition.

Dioramas are used by some museums to show an individual wearing the snowshoes. The Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian’s activity centre takes an interactive approach. Through allowing adults and children to explore snowshoes, it is helping the visitor to really experience what wearing them feels like, stimulating thoughts about their weight and how to walk in them.

During my research I considered how knowledge about snowshoes could be mobilised in order to inform others. While snowshoes have been incorporated into larger themes in museums, exhibitions focused on snowshoes are quite rare. An exhibition exploring the origins and traditional methods of making snowshoes would help to give visitors a better understanding and keep this important heritage alive. This would provide a way for the culture surrounding snowshoes to be preserved instead of becoming lost through modern manufacturing practices. My experience with researching snowshoes has acted to really increase my interest in the subject. Perhaps, by discussing the rich and complex heritage associated with snowshoes, museums can help their publics to share my newfound interest.

Editor's Note: India is a first year Masters of Museum Studies Candidate. She moved to Toronto in August 2015 from London, UK. She completed her undergraduate degree, BA in history with archaeology at the University of Bangor in North Wales, UK. She then volunteered for a year at the Royal Air Force Museum in London with the Access and Learning Team. While doing her Master’s degree she would like to learn more about museum education, exhibition planning and collections management. She also enjoys photography and loves to spend a fun day visiting the Toronto Zoo and other places in Toronto. She writes a personal blog almost every week about the life of an international student in Canada to inform family and friends back home and offer advice to others.

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