The canoe was donated to the museum (formerly the college’s art gallery) by Clyde Keeler ’23 back in 1971. It had been used by the people of the Kuna Islands in Panama in the early 20th century. The boat’s sheer size (it measures more than 17 feet long) demanded that it be stored off-site, and there it waited for the perfect exhibition, which came in the form of “Knock on Wood: Five Years and Counting,” a celebration of the Museum’s fifth anniversary that highlighted wooden objects in the Denison collection—many of which had never been on display.
So how do you get a canoe that has been in storage for four decades ready for prime time? With a little spittle, actually. Soaps and cleaning agents are frowned upon in the museum world because they often contain harsh chemicals that could damage a piece. Saliva contains the perfect blend of mild enzymes useful for surface cleaning delicate pieces like the canoe.