Operation Kayak

It’s widely accepted amongst museum professionals that as little as 2 to 5 percent of a museum’s collection may be on view at any given time. For a larger institution such as PEM this is a significant number of objects, easily into the hundreds of thousands.  Fortunately PEM takes every opportunity to showcase the collection.

But what happens when something not on view is important for the research of a scholar?  This is one of the many roles that Collection Management fills.  We get requests from scholars, researchers, curators and others with interest in our collection that quite often includes objects that are not on view.  We provide access to the collection in storage on a regular basis and try our best to fulfill as many requests as our other commitments allow.


The author at work. Courtesy Walter Silver/PEM

The interests of the scholarly and research community are as varied as PEM’s collection.  We may host museum professionals from Japan one day and then provide access to the collection by a scholar or researcher from a local historical society the next. I recently had the pleasure of hosting a less-than-routine visit involving some of the water craft that PEM has in the collection.

Fred Randall is an engineer who has been building replicas of Inuit Qajaqs (Kayaks) for the past seven years.  It seems only natural that an engineer interested in a particular object would want to understand as much as possible about its construction and apply that information by constructing their own. Fred has done just that by constructing a number of replicas, some of which have been donated to the Qajaq USA demo fleet.  His passion for these water crafts has also led him to audit classes in Artic studies at Bowdoin College and he has lectured at the Peary MacMillan Artic Museum on Greenland Qajaqs.

Fred’s trip to PEM was to review kayaks in the collection to create a commissioned replica.  Though these objects have not been on view in some time, they are well documented in books by scholars and researchers like Edwin Tappan Adney and ‎Howard Irving Chapelle’s book Bark Canoes and Skin Boats of North America.  This sort of study and documentation helps future researchers continue to benefit from the collection at PEM and the work that Fred did (and will do) will add to understanding of these objects in the future.  But what made Fred’s visit a little more unusual?  The method used.


Understanding the construction of a kayak that is fully intact is difficult…a  lot of the important stuff is on the inside. Through a combination of high and low tech, perhaps in a way only an engineer could devise, Fred is able to get inside the kayaks he studies to learn about how it was made from the inside out.

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With a web cam and flashlight attached to the end of a stripped down fishing pole, a laptop and a couple of USB extensions, we were able to get inside the kayaks and see them as probably no one has before.  Hand held cameras and lots of measurements rounded out the process. Fred was able to leave with a wealth of information that will help inform his work and improve our understanding of our collection.

Editor’s note: We’ve got boats on the brain! Stay tuned for more upcoming boat posts relating to the creation of our Impressionists on the Water exhibition, opening this fall.


Gustave Caillebotte, Boating on the Yerres (Périssoires sur L’Yerres). Milwaukee Art Museum, Gift of the Milwaukee Journal Company, in honor of Miss Faye McBeath. Photograph by John R. Glembin

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