For the past year Amelia Fay, Curator of HBC and I have worked on the development of a temporary exhibit on Manitoba’s Fur Trade. Although our collections are quite different, they certainly complement each other and each shed light on the Fur Trade. The archaeological material is generally things that were discarded or lost. The ethnographic materials from the HBC collection are the things kept and cherished. This exhibit compares and contrasts these two types of collections, showing how items were used, reused and repurposed.
A guiding theme we tried to focus on was that the Fur Trade was not a one way street of ideas and materials. The process of cultural exchange was complicated. The idea European materials were vastly superior is not supported by what we see archaeologically or ethnographically. A number of First Nation technologies were quickly adopted by Europeans that are still with us today including the birch bark canoe and snowshoes.
In school we are often told that clay pots were almost immediately abandoned for the more superior copper kettles. Simple, right? Copper kettles are certainly lighter and more durable than clay pots but are they better? Having cooked a meal in a clay pot on an open fire I would argue that the performance of a clay pot is superior to the copper kettle. The food does not burn or stick to the inside of the pot and they sit nicely on the coals of a fire. In comparison, a flat bottomed copper kettle is unstable on campfires and food often burns and sticks. So what is best? In weighing the positives and negatives of each technology ultimately the copper kettle won out and the clay pot fell out of use. The advantage of stackable, light and durable cooking vessels won out over taste and performance. With recent trends around food maybe it is time to bring back the pots.
Come visit the museum and see this new exhibit. Learn how ideas and materials were borrowed, adapted and modified. See what technologies are still with us today!