Iqaluit museum contends with colonial past

Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum acknowledges problematic practices; vows to bring in more Inuit perspectives

The 2023-26 strategic plan for Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum sits atop one of its display cases. Part of the plan includes a statement acknowledging the museum’s colonial past and separating Inuit from their culture. (Photo by David Lochead)

By David Lochead

Iqaluit’s Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum is addressing its colonial history.

The museum, which hosts a collection of artwork, tools, archival documents and other materials sourced from Iqaluit and the Qikiqtani region, released a statement and plan for its future on Feb. 8.

“Nunatta Sunakkutaangit Museum harmed Inuit by participating in the separation of their belongings and cultural practices in service to the museum’s goals of preservation and education,” the statement said.

It also touched on the fact that the museum has not addressed cultural genocide of Inuit, did not acquire Inuit belongings in a just way and did not include Inuit voices in decisions about how those items are presented in the museum.

The museum announced plans to incorporate Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit, or traditional knowledge, principles into the way it operates, bring in more Inuit involvement in the museum and offer more programming for the community.

“It matters a lot to me,” said Jessica Kotierk, Nunatta Sunakkutaangit curator and manager, about the statement.

She said it shows the museum is aware of its connection to colonialism, instead of just ignoring what she calls the “elephant in  the room.”

“It feels like a first, basic level step to me,” Kotierk said.

Kotierk has experience working in several museums, including the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Ontario and National Museum of Denmark. She said she was surprised Nunatta Sunakkutaangit was not already talking about its past problematic practices, since it’s becoming more common for museums to address these issues.

“It made sense that we would also make statements and work on it,” she said.

Kotierk said she hopes that the acknowledgement and plan brings more Inuit visitors through the door. She also hopes Inuit perspectives guide what items are put on display and how they are displayed, as well as what events are held.

“Those are the long term changes and impact that making the statement will hopefully have,” she said.

The museum is holding its annual general meeting on Feb. 21.

Kotierk said she hopes the meeting is an event where people can feel welcome to show up and give their comments on the museum, without feeling any pressure to make commitments to volunteer or join the board.

“It’s kind of like that an open house opportunity that I hope people take,” Kotierk said.

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(38) Comments:

  1. Posted by Be brave on

    Museums are all about the past, “colonial” or not. Forget the activist spin, just tell the history. All of it. It’s not like all the inuit pre-contact history is rosy, either, and it’s interesting, so I hope they are brave enough to tell that too.

    • Posted by Boohoo on

      I can taste the salt in this lol

    • Posted by Deconstructing our myths on

      I expect it will take another generation, perhaps longer, before Inuit approach their own past with the same imperative to ‘deconstruct’ as are currently being applied to the West. For now the past is a lost utopia.

    • Posted by How we tell history matters on

      It’s not “activist spin” to add context to items recovered as part of archaeological or anthropological exhibitions. Colonialism and it’s impact on Inuit is _part_ of the history of these artifacts. How they came to be a part of an exhibit is an important part of history as well (even if it’s problematic). This is why museums are trying to let people tell their own stories, so they can tell history accurately and with the appropriate context.

      • Posted by iWonder on

        To ‘How we tell history matters.’

        The language codes used here signal ‘activist’ to some.

        I believe they are picking up specific speech forms ushered into public discourse by ‘progressives.’ Here’s an example: the “Museum harmed Inuit by participating in the separation of their belongings and cultural practices in service to the museum’s goals of preservation and education.”

        Do you really believe the museum “harmed” Inuit? Or that it separated Inuit from their belongings?

        I doubt many would argue against real historical injustices and harm. But the kind of ‘harmflation’ we see in statements like this appears more histrionic and performative than believable to me.

        Back to your statement, you allude to something ‘problematic’ about the collection at the museum? Could you tell us what that is, and why it is ‘problematic’ to you?

        • Posted by How we tell history matters on

          As a quick aside, what’s so wrong with being an activist? Shouldn’t we appreciate people wanting to make the world a better place?

          I can’t speak to the collection at the Iqaluit Museum, but anthropologists, archaeologists and historians have a problematic history of either taking artifacts from indigenous people without compensating them, or paying them far below what they are worth to then turn around and make money off of these artifacts or lie/make up facts about their uses. Often times these fabrications were inherently racist, painting locals as savages or primitive.

          This is a common discussion happening among museums, with anthropologists/archeologists/historians working with indigenous people to better tell history and repatriate stolen artifacts.

          Because you’re unaware of the harm done, does not mean it is “harmflation” to talk about it. Maybe listen? Participate in the open house (with an open mind)? or read some anthropological journals to learn more? This would be an appropriate alternative to demanding strangers on the internet educate you.

          • Posted by iWonder on

            I made no judgement on being an ‘activist,’ I was pointing to the source of an observation you made. Another quick aside, it’s not unusual for people who want to make things better, to make things much worse (generally speaking).

            You say “I can’t speak to the collection at the Iqaluit Museum…”

            But, isn’t that what we are talking about?

            The idea that these artifacts were stolen (and thus problematic) is kind of central to this discussion. Is your point that the Museum is complicit in the actions of other museums? Guilt by association? Or, ‘maybe’ they did the same thing? Since you can’t “speak to it” I guess we will all just wonder if you are right or not?

            Accusing a person who asks you to clarify a point of demanding you ‘educate them’ has to be one of the most disingenuous and cowardly tactics in public discourse. Really, it’s a smug advertisement that your opinions should be obvious to everyone.

        • Posted by Monkey See on

          I think the people involved have seen the issues revolving around institutions like the British Museum and the Pergamonmuseum in Berlin, places that are guilty of actually stealing cultures and stashing them in a palace basement, and decided to follow suit. But they seem to have done this without realizing that they are actually an example of the SOLUTION. Irrespective of how the museum may have come into possession of the artifacts, the artifacts are HERE and not moldering away in a European basement somewhere.

          Inuit participation should be maximized. But I don’t see how I can sit in this office with NO Inuk coworkers and blame the museum for having the same issue.

    • Posted by Jay Arnakak on

      I think that that is Kotierk’s point: to stop and reflect on our more recent past and not just display an apparently “ahistorical” culture.

      • Posted by Pure Kabuki on

        No one thinks the artifacts housed at the museum exist without history or context and very few if any are unaware that Nunavut was colonized.

        Koteirk’s statements are pure Kabuki, Jay.

        • Posted by Jay Arnakak on

          what I meant to say was that our history is now a family thing, the best preservers of our traditions and stories, which is not necessarily reflected by the ‘narrative’ of the displays

    • Posted by Bob on

      Recognizing that those who wrote the history books, created systems of recording and preserving artifacts done so in a colonial way is making for a more accurate picture. And by recognizing this doesn’t mean that it’s going to be a completely “rosy” picture either. Recognizing the colonial past means recognizing that some artifacts were stolen and that efforts can be made to return those. Justifying that theft by saying “at least they preserved them” is short sighted. A colonial past also shows that some of those documenting history did not even see Inuit as people but as savages with amazing adaptability to the cold. That part of history needs to be recorded too. How can you ever begin to properly record and recognize the complex social and cultural structures if you don’t even see people as people? Whatever they did needs updating and as this is field going back hundreds of years, there is a lot of updating required for things to be accurately portrayed. This is not an activist spin in recognizing colonialism, it’s an accurate fix on documenting history the way it happened. Not seeing Inuit as people with rights went so far as to separate kids from parents to display in the US as objects. It went so far as to kidnap Inuit so that they may harpoon swans in front of the British Queen. So yeah, colonial practices were rampant. It is an institution in the service of society that researches, collects, conserves, interprets and exhibits tangible and intangible heritage. It’s not about rewriting history but providing for a true picture in time.

      • Posted by The Issue on

        Well Bob, your truth are my lies. What’re we gonna do?

      • Posted by How it looks from here on

        Bob, you say ” Recognizing the colonial past means recognizing that some artifacts were stolen and that efforts can be made to return those.”

        You suggest that ‘theft of artifacts’ is fact because ‘colonialism.’ But it is not. Now, it may be true in this case, or it may not be. There is not enough information provided here for us to discern that. And you have certainly not provided any either.

        • Posted by Nail on the Head on

          Absolutely correct – I’m afraid that all the new director is done is display ignorance of the history of our museum. It has certainly diminished her credibility and standing to not be aware of the background of the institution. Jumping on trends that are happening elsewhere without knowing the local situation and context shows a certain lack of professionalism – some would say an arrogance.

  2. Posted by John K on

    I wonder what would have happened if our old artifacts if they hadn’t been picked up and put in a museum.

    Would we have had the forethought to preserve them? The capacity to teach with them? Would they have been buried or destroyed just to be forgotten and serve no benefit to anyone but the last person to use them?

    I’m hung up on this topic and unsure how I feel.

  3. Posted by Self Loathing is a Virtue on

    All these general references to past misdeeds but no specifics, how are we supposed to know that they are sincere in their self-criticism?
    They haven’t even mentioned that they are located in a former Hudson Bay Company building!
    They are clearly bourgeois backsliders and insufficiently pure of doctrine! Cast them out!

    • Posted by You’ve Nailed It on

      You’re right of course. I initially saw them as more running dog lackeys, but they are clearly bourgeois backsliders, and not just any bourgeois, but petit-bourgeois at that.

      The public self-flagellations will be at noon on Tuesdays and Fridays – weather permitting.

    • Posted by Patrick Star on

      The statement issued on their February 8 on their facebook page about its colonial history began by acknowledging that is housed in a former HBC warehouse.

      • Posted by Blue Monday on

        Does your knowledge that the museum is housed in the old HBC warehouse cause you pain, Patrick? Are you psychologically harmed by this?

        • Posted by Patrick Star on

          No, I am just sharing that information with Self Loathing is a Virtue. Why would that cause me psychological “harm”? Not everyone takes everything so personally like you do. Chill out.

      • Posted by Self Loathing is a Virtue on

        True, but there’s no acknowledgement of how problematic it is.

        • Posted by HBC Was Applauded – It Is Not ‘Problematic’ on

          It is not problematic. The building was bought for $1 and moved to its current location. At the time it was seen as something of coup and HBC was applauded for its support.

  4. Posted by iWonder on

    “Koteirk… was surprised Nunatta Sunakkutaangit was not already talking about its past problematic practices, since it’s becoming more common for museums to address these issues.”

    Indeed, not only museums but corporations, governments, individuals swept by the demand for the expiation of sin through confession of wrong doing by activist progressives has never been higher.

    But how real it is?

    When it is said the Museum “did not acquire Inuit belongings in a just way” I would like to know if that is true and what counts for a “just way”? Also, at what point do we accept that the people of the past, including Inuit, did not think let alone act under modern, western-progressive moral codes (ironically, this way of categorizing the world is its own kind of colonialism).

    Unfortunately, our local media are very passive disseminators of information. As we all know they never ask these questions of any kind.

    Why is that Nunatsiaq? Do only “bad people” interrogate the new catechisms?

  5. Posted by Uloos on

    Several years ago my wife (an Inuk elder) was visiting residents of the Elders centre in Iqaluit. Several of the ladies got to talking about the uloos they had gotten from their mothers. The consensus was that their daughters were not interested in the uloos. After much discussion the ladies decided that they should give the uloos to the Iqaluit Museum.

  6. Posted by Kenn Harper on

    I see nothing inherently wrong with the museum being in a repurposed former HBC building. I see it as entirely appropriate. With today’s emphasis on recycling, and the high costs of buildings, it was wise to use it for a new purpose. Inuit reliance on the HBC in former times when government services were not available needs to be studied from an honest and nuanced perspective. It’s simplistic and just not good enough to just say “HBC bad”.
    It’s a good museum operating on a small budget, always a tough task, so there is always room for improvement. But I think the museum board and staff (past and present) deserve the heartfelt thanks of residents and users of the facility. There is a need for more Inuit involvement, so encourage it.

  7. Posted by Igunaq on

    Colonial this …. colonial that.. Is St Valentine’s Day a colonial institution too. I guess so as saints are designated by the Vatican.

    • Posted by Colonial Time on

      Clocks are also colonial, which must be why it’s so hard to get workers to show up on time.

  8. Posted by Bert Rose on

    There is a need to understand the historical perspective of how and when the collections at the museum were assembled.
    The collection processes significantly predate the creation of the Museum in its present building or in the front of the old liquor store.
    The author of this story needs to do additional research on the museum history
    Inuit were present at the initial planning meeting in 1974. And so was I.

    • Posted by No Moniker on

      When it comes to historical or scientific accuracy, progressives are undoubtedly the least rigorous group the media takes seriously. Theirs is a narrative driven discourse more akin to theology than historiography.

  9. Posted by Past board member on

    I think one must be very very mindful to not make unfounded accusations. Jessica has been ED at the Museum for a blink of an eye. Has she read the meeting minutes of years of past meetings held by past boards? I can tell you that she hasn’t or she would not be making such claims. As a past board member of many, many years standing, I witnessed the thousands of hours of volunteering given by caring Iqalungmiut to preserve history, showcase the wonderful talent of Inuit artists and crafts persons and promote Northern arts and history. The work that went into renovating the aging museum was done by volunteers. it was previous boards who determined that Inuit artists would be paid a fair price for their art and that it would then be marked up only 10% to ensure that artists received what the museum sold that art for minus 10% only. Others in Iqaluit who sold Inuit art objected saying the museum was undercutting their profits by doing this. Jessica’s broad statements are not in the spirit of Reconciliation: as Canadians and Nunavummiut we must move forward together to forge a new understanding of how to do so together. Laying blame and making assumptions that are not fact based is not the way to start.

    • Posted by The Lotus Eaters on

      Unfortunately the people who write these articles have only been in Iqaluit for the blink of an eye too. There have zero sense or connection to the past here and are consequently unable to add meaningful context or even probe the basic kinds of questions they should.

      • Posted by Past board member on

        Again – assumptions and broad statements! I don’t think almost 40 years of living, working and volunteering in Iqaluit is a blink of an eye – from my life perspective it is not ( it is 2/3 of my life). I don’t think past board members like Mat Nuqingaq (past chair of many years); Kirt Ejesiak or Alexina Kublu would agree that it was a blink of an eye for them. Most long-term board members who volunteered have lived here for decades and are now Elders in their own right – Nunavut Elders. Be reminded that “All Canadians are Treaty Peoples, share responsibility for establishing and maintaining mutually respectful relationships.” TRC Call to Action #6

        • Posted by The Lotus Eaters on

          I’m not talking about you, I’m talking about the journalists who write these articles.

  10. Posted by Inuit art in Nunavut… not London, England on

    This seems like broad statements to sound like Britain is trying to steal out stuff.

    What was the action how the museum in Iqaluit acquired items? Did they obtain them without reparations? Steal them? If so, what will they do about it?

    It’s Inuit art and artifacts in Nunavut. What is the solution?

    • Posted by Pieces Bought by an Inuk Buyer For Many Years on

      The museum employed an Inuk buyer for many years who travelled all around buying pieces from communities – fair prices were paid. This is common knowledge, and it is disturbing that the director doesn’t know this.

      The intention was very much to keep pieces local rather than have them go to museums in Winnipeg, Yellowknife or Ottawa.

      • Posted by No Moniker on

        As I mentioned above, this is not about history, it is about theology. The recitation of a catechism about the evils of colonialism that can be easily seen to permeate the entire thought and narrative making process at the public level.

        Some of us notice this, too bad our local media, the so called gatekeepers of our public logos are so quick to embrace these trends, cowering, I imagine, at the thought of asking a single good question.

        What an absolute disgrace.

        • Posted by Canada Wide Problem on

          Yes, it would have been nice if the NN folks had dug a bit deeper and provided context and a counterpoint to the director rather than just parroting her inaccuracies (untruths?).

          On the other hand, that would require a great deal of time for a small article by writers who don’t have the time nor the local knowledge while operating on a very short timeline.

          Nunavummiut suffer because of this, and half-truths like the director’s get spread, but I don’t know how it can be changed. There certainly isn’t the money nor time for in-depth research, so it is easier to rehash press releases or to take words at face value without deeper questioning.

          It is not only NN though – many small papers in Canada are suffering from centralization and loss of local knowledge and insights.

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