Igloolik clothing on display at new British Museum exhibit

Iglulingmiut have played a big role in putting together an exhibition of Arctic clothing now on display at the British Museum in London.


Special to Nunatsiaq News

IGLOOLIK — On Feb. 14 an exhibition called Annuraaq: Arctic Clothing from Igloolik opened at the British Museum in London, England.

Organized in consultation with the Igloolik Inullariit Elders Society, the Nunavut Research Institute and the Nunavut government’s Department of Culture, Language, Elders and Youth, the exhibition highlights contemporary sewing from Igloolik. It also displays a selection of clothing previously collected by the British Museum from Igloolik and other areas of the Arctic including Labrador.

Links between Igloolik and the British Museum have a long history going back some 180 years when a Royal Navy expedition, searching for a northwest passage, visited Igloolik in 1822.

The expedition, led by Capt. William Edward Parry, failed to find a northwest passage because sea ice in the area blocked the westerly progress of his ships.

He was forced to spend the winter on Igloolik Island. Parry’s two ships were ice-bound in Igloolik’s bay for almost 10 months, but the monotony of this long winter was relieved by the friendly and ever-helpful presence of the island’s Inuit.

Iglulingmiut artifacts

During his stay in Igloolik Parry purchased, usually in exchange for wood and iron, many items of Iglulingmiut material culture, including examples of clothing, hunting implements, and utensils — including ulus, soapstone lamps, antler snow-goggles, ivory combs and snow-knives. Most of these were acquired by the British Museum, where they can be seen to this day.

The expedition’s journals, written in Igloolik and published by Parry and one of his officers, George Francis Lyon, after their return to England, gave Europe its first detailed account of Canadian Inuit life and customs.

More recently, in 1987, the British Museum, in consultation with Igloolik elders and northern Dene groups, presented a highly successful exhibition Living Arctic: Hunters of the Canadian North. Iglulingmiut Rebecca Paapaaq, George Qulaut and the late Victor Aqatsiaq travelled to London to advise the museum on the accurate presentation of contemporary Inuit culture and lifestyles. They also guided the construction and furnishing of a model snow house made out of styrofoam blocks, and took part in a series of educational programs teaching British school children about life in the Arctic.

The Living Arctic exhibition was immensely popular with the British public and bettered all the museum’s previous attendance records. This ground-breaking exhibition, amply supported by Hugh Brody’s book Living Arctic, published to coincide with the event, literally took Inuit and Dene cultures out of the museum display cases and presented them as vibrant, living entities, challenging the popular European stereotype that all northern Canadian native cultures are artifacts of the past.

Igloolik elders made exhibits

Planning for the current exhibition, Annuraaq, began when Jonathan King, the British Museum’s curator of ethnology, visited Igloolik in November 2000 to consult with the Inullariit Elders Society and to arrange for the sewing and purchase of locally made clothing, including boots and mitts.

Following King’s visit, Leah Aksaajuq Otak, Nunavut’s director of Culture and Heritage, travelled to London last December, at the museum’s expense, to advise on the selection and presentation of items for the exhibition, chosen from the remarkable collection of Inuit clothing held in the museum’s storehouse.

Aksaajuq was impressed with the efforts taken by the museum staff to care for the skin clothing in storage. The clothing is kept at constant temperature and humidity levels.

In addition, prior to long-term storage, each piece of clothing is “freeze-dried” before being placed in a sealed plastic bag, a process that is repeated each time an item is removed for inspection or display.

“I was amazed how well-preserved most of the clothing was, especially the older pieces, which had been collected over 100 years ago,” Aksaajuq said. “The skin was still soft, and the sinew stitches almost as tight as when they were first made.”

She added that it was thrilling to actually handle caribou skin clothing made in Igloolik almost 200 years ago.

As well as selecting clothing for the exhibition, Aksaajuq, during her stay in London, gave a well-received workshop for the benefit of the museum’s staff in which she demonstrated methods traditionally used by Inuit to preserve and care for caribou and sealskin clothing.

Inuit clothing conference

The Annuraaq exhibition, which runs until May 27, 2001, coincides with a major conference on Arctic clothing hosted by the museum March 29 and 31.

The conference Arctic Clothing from North America — Alaska, Canada, and Greenland, will involve some 25 speakers from Canada, Greenland, USA and Europe.

An elegant web site to accompany the exhibition has been created by the Museum. The site illustrates and describes many of the items on display and can be reached at http://www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk/annuraaq/index.html.

You can find a tour of the exhibit at: http://www.thebritishmuseum.ac.uk/compass/ixbin/goto?id=ENC7425&tour=int

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