One of the saddest parts of leaving my previous post at the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge was no longer having regular access to the Institute’s Polar Museum. The museum houses a large number of artefacts, primarily associated with British exploration of the North and South Poles, but importantly also holds extensive collections of Inuit material culture. I have used some of these objects in my previous research and have done a bit of work in tracing the colonial connections that are inherently attached to this varied collection.
Upon moving to my new post at the University of Glasgow, however, I was surprised to discover that I was once again surrounded by various forms of Inuit material culture. It turns out that several of the museums and galleries across Glasgow hold objects and artefacts that have been produced by various indigenous Arctic communities.
Curious to learn more, I set about investigating the stories behind some of these objects and tried to find out how they had made their way into these museums. I also started to think about how these objects have been used to educate museum visitors on the peoples of the Arctic and what aspects of their lives, livelihoods and cultures have been put on display.
Inuit clothing on display in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.
The first Inuit objects I came across in Glasgow were the parka (hooded top), qarliik (trousers) and kamiit (boots) that are currently on display at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum. I was immediately drawn to the beautiful craftwork that had gone into the creation of these items but also to the objects and artistry that had been positioned alongside them. As can be seen in the image above, the clothing is surrounded by various natural history specimens typically associated with the Arctic – including polar bears, Arctic foxes and caribou – and is also backed by a landscape featuring the Aurora Borealis.
This is in fact a very common depiction of Arctic peoples in museum settings and similar displays can be found in galleries and exhibitions around the world. However it has been argued that such representations are problematic in that they imply that Inuit are in some way ‘part of nature’ and thus should be ‘examined’ in the same way that we might study the astronomical phenomena or specimens of animal and plant life that are placed alongside.
In terms of the provenance of these items, according to the records held by Glasgow Museums, they were all donated to the collections by a certain ‘Mrs E.K. Wilkie.’ Wilkie had reportedly travelled to Alaska in 1901 to visit her brother-in-law, and had met with Lieutenant George Thornton Emmons, a prolific collector of indigenous material culture who contributed objects to several museum collections in the United States including the Smithsonian Institution. Emmons had in fact purchased the clothing from the indigenous peoples of the Inuvialuit region of what is now North-West Canada. He had in turn sold the items to Wilkie who had then transported them across the Atlantic on her return home to Scotland where she presumably donated them to the museum upon her death.
It is therefore interesting to think that the chance purchase of some ‘exotic’ souvenirs during a holiday in Alaska have now been transformed into a museum exhibit used to inform and educate the people of Glasgow about the indigenous inhabitants of the Arctic.
Arctic objects on display at the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum.
The next set of Arctic objects I found were on display at the University of Glasgow’s Hunterian Museum. In the Museum’s main hall, an eclectic mix of objects produced by various Inuit communities across the circumpolar Arctic are grouped together under the heading ‘First Contact.’ The accompanying text points to the diversity of these objects and highlights the ways in which different Inuit communities have produced these tools as a result of their differing needs as well as the physical environments in which they dwell.
I was also lucky enough to go ‘behind the scenes’ of the Hunterian to study some of the Inuit objects held in the museum’s collections that are not on public display. Visiting the Hunterian Collections Study Centre at Kelvinhall, I was able to handle a range of different Inuit objects including spears, snow knives, combs and various items of clothing.
Inuit knives and hooks held in the Hunterian collections.
What struck me most about the all of objects in the Hunterian’s collections though was how little information is available to investigate their histories. Indeed, the museum themselves have noted this lack of provenance in their ‘biographies’ of the objects. The catalogue does give some insights into how one or two of objects had made their way into the collection, but this often amounted to little more than a few words such as ‘Donated by W Liddle (1840, c.)’ or ‘Purchase from Christie’s, Manson and Woods (22nd July 1980).’
Some of the catalogue entries mentioned that several of the older objects were reportedly collected during the third voyage of Captain James Cook and were later purchased for the collection by the Museum’s founder William Hunter. From speaking to Andrew Mills, the Hunterian’s Curator of World Cultures, it seems that these claims have been very difficult to verify and only recently have they been proved more conclusively.
Pualuuk (fur mitts) held in the Hunterian collections.
As a whole though, it is very difficult to find accurate information about where, when and by whom these objects were collected. Even more importantly though, in most cases, there is absolutely no information about which individuals or Arctic communities created these artefacts in the first place. This means there are many unanswered questions about the circumstances through which these items, which are essential for hunting and survival in the Arctic, were transported to this Scottish city.
Parka held in the Hunterian collections.
Interestingly though, the Hunterian has recently unveiled a series of new displays relating to their ‘Curating Discomfort’ project. In the museum’s own words, this project seeks to put forward ‘discomforting provocations and interventions to help us to understand that museums have perpetuated ideologies of white supremacy [and] colonial systems.’ The museum is thus revisiting and re-examining many of the objects in it’s collections in order to investigate the histories of colonialism and slavery that are attached to them.
New ‘Curating Discomfort’ exhibits at the Hunterian Museum.
Thankfully, the Arctic collections are included within the project’s remit which should hopefully mean that further information about these objects will come to light in the near future. This might in turn reveal more about the people and communities who crafted them, and also more about the ways in which they were transformed into museum objects and ethnological artefacts through these problematic practices of colonial collecting.
- ‘Biographies of Objects,’ The Hunterian Museum, https://www.gla.ac.uk/hunterian/visit/exhibitions/virtualexhibitions/biographiesofobjects/
- ‘Curating Discomfort,’ The Hunterian Museum, https://www.gla.ac.uk/hunterian/about/achangingmuseum/curatingdiscomfort/
- Crozier, B. (2019). ‘From Earliest Contacts: An Examination of Inuit and Aleut Art in Scottish Collections,’ in M. Hitchcock & K. Teague (Eds.), Souvenirs: The Material Culture of Tourism. Routledge.
- Ideins, D. (1999) ‘Eskimos in Scotland’, in C. F. Feest (Ed.) Indians and Europe: An Interdisciplinary Collection of Essays. University of Nebraska Press.