A Canadian Exclusive

Wampum: Beads of Diplomacy

Bearing witness to more than two centuries of diplomatic exchange between the nations of North America

Until March 10, 2024, the McCord Stewart Museum presents the exhibition Wampum: Beads of Diplomacy. Wampum are remarkable objects made from shell beads that were exchanged for over two centuries—from the early 17th to the early 19th century—during diplomatic meetings between nations in northeastern America, including European nations. For the first time, this unprecedented exhibition brings together over 40 wampum belts from public and private collections in Quebec, Canada and Europe. Some forty cultural objects from the period also help to contextualize and explain their fundamental role. In addition, the Museum is continuing its mission to amplify contemporary Indigenous voices by inviting the public to discover the work of artists Hannah Claus, Nadia Myre, Teharihulen Michel Savard and Skawennati, inspired by wampum, and to hear anecdotes from members of several nations through a series of videos. This exhibition, presented exclusively in Canada at the McCord Stewart Museum by Rio Tinto, launches a cycle of temporary exhibitions dedicated to the art, knowledge and history of Indigenous peoples, which will run until fall 2024.

Powerful cultural and political symbols

Wampum belt

Wampum belt, Eastern Woodlands, 18th century.
Gift of David Ross McCord, M1907, McCord Stewart Museum

The exhibition invites visitors to explore the powerful cultural and political symbolism of wampum. These objects were the physical representation of words, agreements or laws that had to accompany any accord or talk between nations. Spoken words were only considered sincere if accompanied by wampum. These “belts of truth” therefore served to materialize the word, to confirm it and to seal alliances. Visitors will be able to understand the fundamental role of wampum in relations between Indigenous and European nations, the relationship between these objects and geopolitical issues in Canadian history, and their significance and influence today.

“Since wampum are valuable and coveted objects that bear witness to international alliances at the very heart of Canada, it’s important that we better understand them. We believe that putting on display the majority of wampum preserved in Canadian institutions will spark discussion and provoke thought. We hope this exhibition will create opportunities for gathering and exchange, just as wampum did in the past,”says Jonathan Lainey, Curator, Indigenous Cultures, and lead curator of the exhibition.

On October 14, around 40 representatives of nations and communities from the United States and Canada gathered at the Museum to welcome the wampum and reconnect directly with these cultural objects before they went on display.

Wampum belt

Wampum belt, Unknown provenance,18th century.
Gift of David Ross McCord, M1913,
McCord Stewart Museum

Exceptional international collaboration

Developed and co-produced with the musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac in Paris, the exhibition was first presented in Paris and then at the Seneca Art and Culture Center in Victor, New York. The only stop in Canada, the Montreal presentation brings together the largest selection of cultural belongings. Visitors to the exhibition will also be able to view wampum and related objects – medals, weapons, ornaments, moccasins, maps, engravings, books, etc…

“This exhibition is an absolutely unprecedented opportunity in my career since wampum has been my main research subject for over twenty years. When I submitted my master’s thesis on the subject in 2003, I never imagined that one day I’d be supervising an exhibition bringing together so many wampum in one place, in an institution as celebrated as the McCord Stewart Museum. The relationships we’ve developed with other institutions and Indigenous nations over the years, and the trust they place in us, have allowed us to pull off this real tour de force,” says Jonathan Lainey.

For more information, including ticket prices and opening hours, visit: www.musee-mccord-stewart.ca