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Solving the “Mystery of the Wilson sledge runner”

Wednesday, August 30th, 2017

This object is the “Wilson sledge runner”, and admittedly it does not look very interesting in its own right:

But appearances can be deceptive, because the story goes that this fragment was actually part of the dramatic moment when Scott’s party, nearing the South Pole on 18th January 1912, saw the first signs that the Norwegians had been there already and had their hopes of being first to the Pole dashed.

The sledge runner was being used as a flag pole with a black marker flag and a note with a statement of the Norwegians calculations of their position.  Edward Wilson and Scott both recorded this moment in their diaries, and Wilson also sketched the site before collecting the flag, note and part of the sledge runner:

The story goes on to tell how the fragment was allegedly found with the bodies of Scott and his party, and given to Wilson’s widow, Oriana.  From her it was passed to her great friend Evelyn Ferrar in her will, and was then brought to the Polar Museum by Evelyn’s son Nick Forbes.

Nick Forbes asked the Polar Museum to examine the sledge runner to see if this story could be “proved”.  Apart from Scott and Wilson’s diary entries which describe the finding of the flag and sledge runner, the whole story was only preserved in Nick’s family as an oral tradition.  Perhaps the fragment was not the one in the story after all.  Proving something like this beyond all doubt would be impossible but it should be possible to tell how likely the story was.

When the fragment was examined in detail it quickly became apparent that it is part of a Norwegian sledge runner from the early twentieth century.  The object is a piece of tapering metal which was used as protective cladding on a wooden sledge runner to protect it from damaging sharp ice.  It is made from German silver, an alloy of copper, zinc and nickel which was used for a short period in the early twentieth century as a rust-free and inexpensive alternative to iron cladding.  This important fact, as well as nail holes and other features of the object show that it is certainly from a Norwegian sledge from the right period. Amundsen was a Norwegian and would have planted the flag on the sledge runner in 1911.  So, mystery solved – or not?

Unfortunately the English team was also using Norwegian sledges, and Scott bought all the sledges for both the Discovery (1901-4) and Terra Nova (1910-13) expeditions from Oslo!  This means the fragment could actually be just a random piece of sledge runner from another of Scott’s journeys which has been confused with the “Wilson” fragment.  This is very possible because Nick Forbes’ family have been closely connected to the world of Polar exploration for generations, especially Scott’s Discovery expedition where Nick’s grandfather H.T. Ferrar was the geologist.

The clues to solving the mystery of whose sledge runner this really was took a long time to find.  I hunted through the Archives at SPRI looking for accounts of finding the bodies of the Polar party, along with their effects.  I tried to track the journey of the sledge runner from there to the Forbes family through notebooks, wills, letters and exhibition catalogues, but frustratingly it was never considered worthy of mention.  The flag and the note collected by Wilson at the same time were given to SPRI by Oriana Wilson herself in 1930, and interestingly these were never mentioned in any written sources either, but their provenance is not in doubt.  I crawled around in our stores measuring sledge runners from our Discovery and Terra Nova sledges, and eventually I even looked under the stairs at Amundsen’s delightful house near Oslo where one of the only surviving Norwegian South Pole sledges is stored:

I read many accounts of early twentieth century sledging.  In short, I became a sledge runner nerd!

The crucial evidence to solve the mystery is visible in the sledge runner itself.  On each side are parallel folds which show where it was wrapped around the wooden runner.  The distance between these folds is 10mm, which would be the thickness of the runner too.   The runners from the Discovery and Terra Nova expeditions are about 15mm thick and so much too thick to have fitted the fragment.  Meanwhile, Amundsen’s diary and his official account of his expedition show that he was obsessed with reducing the weight of all his equipment to the bare minimum.  He actually ordered his sledges to be broken up, pared down as thin as possible and then rebuilt, saving many kilos in weight.  The sledges which survive from Amundsen’s expedition show that the runners were about 40% thinner than those used by the English, and were about 10mm thick.  The nails used for cladding were also the same as those which were used with Nick Forbes’ fragment.  So the fragment could definitely have come from an Amundsen sledge.

Amundsen used thin temporary under-runners covered with metal cladding to protect the wooden runners in rough conditions.  In many cases the cladding was made of steel, but according to his own account the leading sledge in the South Pole journey had non-ferrous fixings because iron plays havoc with compass readings.

Amundsen described how his team broke their under-runners in half to make flag poles and skied off in different directions to plant them near the Pole – just to ensure they had definitely covered the territory.  A photograph of Wisting with his sledge taken near the South Pole in 1911 and now in Nasjonalbiblioteket in Oslo shows a whole under-runner fixed to the sledge, the same type as was later used to make the flag poles:

The weight of all the evidence taken together strongly supports the story of the sledge runner.  The full story of the authentication has been written up and is now published in the latest issue of Polar Record. It will be made available free of charge through the University Repository Green Access scheme early in 2018.  In the meantime the metal fragment has been kindly loaned to the Polar Museum by Nick Forbes and is on display there with the flag and note which were found at the same time.



The Antarctic Cataloguing Project is drawing to a close…

Monday, October 31st, 2016


The Antarctic Cataloguing Project will be coming to an end in less than two weeks, and so will my time at the Polar Museum. I can’t believe how quickly the two years have flown by!

The project set out to create a fully researched and illustrated online catalogue all of the Antarctic objects in the museum’s collection. This involved describing, measuring, photographing and condition-assessing each object in the collection, and conducting research to find out more about the objects, the people who used them and the expeditions they were used on. The project also aimed to cross-reference the objects in the museum with material in the Archives and Picture Library at SPRI (e.g. if we have Scott’s goggles, have we got a photo of him wearing them or a diary entry where he refers to them?), and with comparable objects in other national and international collections, and to embed the resultant information in the catalogue itself. Quite a lot of work for one person in two years! Needless to say, I felt somewhat daunted by the task when I started in November 2014…

I spent the first three-four months of the project developing cataloguing guidelines and a consistent structure for the catalogue records which would work for any object in the museum (be it Arctic or Antarctic, modern or historical, object or artwork) and which would also correspond with the Picture Library and Archive catalogues where possible. I also did extensive work to cross-reference the different keyword and classification systems already used in the Museum, Picture Library and Archive catalogues to create standardised and structured systems and develop controlled termlists where possible. (I’m a bit of a cataloguing geek so this job was perfect for me!) Details of this work will be available on the project page on the museum website.

It wasn’t until February 2015 that I was ready to start looking at the objects – and since then I’ve looked at every single Antarctic object in the collection (about 2400 items) and have produced detailed catalogue records in the new consistent structure for each, with neat descriptions and new photos. These are now available on the online catalogue, and I’m really hoping that we’ll be able to add an advanced search on the website in the coming weeks.


The Antarctic catalogue is available at

A team of volunteers has worked on a parallel project to draw together existing biographical information about expeditions and expedition members to create biographical catalogue records for them. These will form a shared resource between the Museum, Archive and Picture Library and we’re hoping that these will become available online in due course – so if you’re looking at an object belonging to Scott, you’ll be able to click on his name and it will bring up his biography. I’ve also had the assistance of an absolutely brilliant volunteer who has done extensive research on some of the lesser known Antarctic expeditions, and also on the manufacturers of objects in the collection.

In addition to all of this (because I didn’t have enough to do!), we’ve been busy making five short films about life in the Antarctic on the themes of clothing, transport, food, navigation and science. Each film features objects from the Polar Museum, interviews with guest contributors talking about their experiences in the Antarctic, and historic and modern photographs. Look out for a blog post on these in the near future.


I’m really going to miss the Polar Museum and SPRI, but it’s been a thoroughly enjoyable two years and I’m really pleased to have ‘completed’ the catalogue (in as much as cataloguing work is ever complete). My biggest sense of achievement comes from having photographed the sledges over three very hot days in August. Many of the sledges are stored on the top shelves of our very small ‘large objects’ store and I had not-so-secretly been hoping that we would run out of time before we had the chance to photograph them. It was utterly exhausting and quite nerve-wracking at times, but it’s brilliant to know that they’re done.

I’d like to say an enormous thank you to everyone at the Polar Museum, particularly to Sophie and Christina for all of the condition assessing, to Chris and Tom at the Department of Biochemistry for all of the photography, and to all of the volunteers who’ve helped on the project.



Science at the Polar Museum!

Wednesday, August 17th, 2016

I’m an MPhil student at SPRI, hopefully progressing on to a PhD come October, and after realising I was going to have a three-month gap over the summer between the end of the former and the start of the latter, I was anxious to do something vaguely productive for at least a part of it. I therefore spoke to Charlotte, the curator, who it turned out had something in mind for just such an occasion. My academic work focuses on computer modelling of glaciers, which, you may think, has very little to do with a museum. To some extent, you’d be right, but not entirely (and who says you can’t be interested in more than one thing anyway?). What I was being asked to do, using my scientific expertise, was to look through the Polar Museum’s large collection of science-related artefacts, identify strengths and weaknesses, and suggest items that could be added to the collection to fill any obvious gaps, particularly with regards to modern Polar science (see, I said modelling wasn’t entirely irrelevant). This was known to be a bit of a gap in what was, unsurprisingly, a more historically-oriented collection.

Stuffed carrier pigeon from the Andrée balloon expedition to the North Pole

Is it a bird? Is it a plane? Yes, it’s a bird. The Museum’s stuffed carrier pigeon from the fatally-unsuccessful Andrée balloon expedition to the North Pole.

Having spent an inordinate amount of time combing through the Museum’s database, launching exploratory expeditions to the basement and deciding quite what you categorise a stuffed carrier pigeon as (is it natural history? Is it communications technology? Is it a navigational aid?), I’ve managed to get a fair idea of what we have and haven’t already got. As a result of this, I’ll be writing a report for Charlotte outlining the current state of the collection and suggesting what we might want to consider acquiring to strengthen it. One problem that has become obvious is that, with modern Polar science being so based on remote sensing (i.e. using satellites and airborne instruments to gather data) and computer analysis, the actual number of tangible objects related to it is rather smaller than it was a century ago – and most of the ones that do exist are essentially variations on the theme of ‘something that looks like a smartphone’. Given getting an entire satellite isn’t really practical for such a small museum, I’ve had to think a bit more widely about what best represents modern science. I’ve come up with a few ideas, so watch this space to see if any exciting new gizmos make their appearance in the future! Further blog posts will be forthcoming, giving a bit more detail about some of the objects I’ve found and some of my ideas.

Needless to say, it’s been a busy few weeks!


“Terra Nova” sails into the museum at last

Tuesday, March 15th, 2016

The Polar Museum has 17 ship models which are mini replicas of vessels used in famous expeditions to the North and South. So I was surprised to discover that until very recently the Museum did not have any model of Scott’s ship “Terra Nova”. That is why there has been no display of this ship in the gallery – until now.

Polar Museum buffs might remember that we do have a model of the Terra Nova made entirely out of silver, very kindly given to us in 2010 by the descendants of Robert Falcon Scott. This needs highly specialized conservation work to repair it and we are actively fundraising for this to be done by a conservation silversmith. But until this work is completed it can’t be put on display.

However, we now also have a traditional wooden scale model of the Terra Nova, very kindly donated by Lindsey Westcott. Lindsey is a descendant of Robert Forde, who served as Chief Petty Officer on the Terra Nova Expedition in 1910-13, and took part in sledging journeys to the Cape in 1911.

The model is a 1:96 scale replica, made by Colin Freeman exactly according to the original ship plans which are held at the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich. We decided it would be a perfect addition to the ship model case in the museum gallery:


There was no spare space in the ship model display, so we decided to replace the model of the Gjøa, which was the first ship to navigate the Northwest Passage, sailed by Roald Amundsen. The ship models are all suspended from very fine steel wire in fitted metal cradles, which look a bit like birds when the model is taken out:


The Terra Nova hull is not the same shape as the Gjøa, so new cradles had to be made. Once again we called on the services of trusty mountmaker Bob Bourne to make fitted cradles for the new model. Then we swapped the two ships over:


Here are the Gjøa and the Terra Nova sailing past eachother on the museum trolley – something which never happened in real life.

There are numerous famous photos of the Terra Nova taken by Herbert Ponting and others, all in black and white. Personally I really like the splashes of colour on the model which remind you that of course the ship was not black and white in real life.  Also the fine detail is amazing:


Because of the way it was installed, we could not re-use the steel wires which were used to hang the Gjøa, so we had to get new wire. Finding the right thickness to match the rest of the display was tricky, until Bob sourced some very fine twisted steel wire in a fishing shop. Apparently it is the perfect thing for catching pike! The wires were threaded through the new cradle, and the Terra Nova could be hung in place:


The ship display now shows the Erebus, the Nimrod, the Fram, and the Terra Nova, and so reflects much more closely the stories of Franklin, Shackleton, Scott and Amundsen which are told in the museum gallery. So many thanks to Lindsey Westcott!


Potty prototypes

Tuesday, November 24th, 2015

The Polar Museum is full of curious objects designed to make living and working in the hostile polar regions easier.  In fact the collection started out more like a resource centre where prospective explorers could come and see equipment that others had used and share ideas (and perhaps even borrow something…).  Not surprisingly, some items were tried out once or twice and never used again, but we still have them in the collection, along with the comments that people made about them which are recorded in our accession register.

One of the fringe benefits of doing a thorough condition survey of our objects is that we get to see some peculiar  one-offs that we might never have noticed before.  One that caught my eye was this combined snowshoe-ski (Y: 2011/36):


This was an experiment by the Falkland Islands Dependency Service aiming to get the best of both types of snow footwear – but apparently “they worked in neither capacity”!

Another oddity is the “racket ski” (N: 127) originally designed in the 1930s by George Seligman, an eminent glaciologist, for use by porters in the Himalayas.  From the top it looks like a rather stubby ski:


But on the underside it has an unexpected covering of velvety fabric!


When you look closer you can see that there are actually two strips of fabric with the nap pointing in opposite directions.  This prevents the skis from slipping either forwards or backwards, as the bristly fabric pokes into the snow.  This technique was borrowed from the Lapps and the Inuit, who know a thing or two about snow travel, and used fur on the underside of boots and snow shoes in a similar way.

The telltale wire and small screws show where it was once hung up on display in the old style museum, for explorers to see the construction – many of our older objects have similar traces of historic display methods.  The other ski in this pair has the wire on the other side so the pair could be hung next to each other showing the top and underside.

The advantage of racket skis was that “they require absolutely no skill in use, and a man, quite unversed in ski-ing, can put them on and walk straight away with them, the only precaution necessary being to keep the points from digging into the snow….Racket ski are superior to snowshoes in that it is not necessary to lift the foot or to walk with feet far apart, and their smaller width makes traversing on steep slopes much easier. They are particularly valuable for use in the neighbourhood of camps and for taking observations, being far less cumbersome and less likely to get mixed up with tripod legs and the like than ordinary ski.”

These racket skis actually made it off the drawing board and were manufactured briefly by Lillywhites in London, but were apparently not widely used.

The most bonkers-looking “ski” in  the collection by far is this one:


It was made during the British Graham Land Expedition (Penola) in 1934-7 for crossing treacherous sea ice – and it too has spent time hanging on the wall in the old style Polar Museum:


It consists of a short bit of wood wrapped with fur, with a leather toe strap to hold a boot.  A pair of these would work by spreading the weight, and the fur was there to prevent slipping.  The ski is very thick and heavy but only 63cm long.  Personally I think you would have to be very brave or desperate to go out on treacherous sea ice wearing these.  Not surprisingly this particular design never caught on – but several slimmer versions without the fur and with more complex foot straps were developed and manufactured in the 1940’s.  So appearances can be deceptive!



“Please touch the objects”: planning our first touch tour

Tuesday, November 17th, 2015


A couple of weeks ago, the Polar Museum held its first touch tour for people with visual impairments. This was a subject particularly dear to my own heart: my own son is registered blind and I’ve become increasingly aware that museums are not always the most accessible places for blind and visually impaired visitors. But it’s also interesting to me because it ties in with a current dilemma for museum conservators: balancing access to the collections with preservation.

Several weeks before the tour, Sophie, Rosie and I went down to our stores to look for suitable objects. We were looking for things that were robust enough to be handled, that had enough tactile detail to be interesting to people with little or no vision, and that told the story of the polar regions and the people who have lived and worked there. Here’s what we came up with:


Our objects fell into two groups: items related to polar art and crafts (Inuit sculpture and carved scrimshaw), and items related to survival and everyday life (including boots and a primus stove used on the Terra Nova expedition). We tried to cover a wide range of themes: Arctic and Antarctic, exploration and science, domestic life, art and crafts, objects old and new, different materials, textures and sizes … all in just seven objects! We also made sure that we had plenty of items available from our education handling collections, including a full suit of modern polar clothing:


We were very lucky to have two conservation interns (Ronja and Megan) and three brilliant volunteers (Alex, Lenny and Claire) helping out, so we ended up with a team of ten people in all. A week beforehand, we got together to plan the tour. An important part of that was training: Rosie showed us how to support visually impaired visitors to the museum, and we all took turns to guide blindfolded colleagues around the museum. It was a very illuminating experience to be in a familiar space but without sight, and also to think about kinds of information are useful to visitors who cannot see the objects.

We then tried out some blindfolded handling. Here are Sophie and me presenting some objects to Willow and Alex … and then having a turn on the other side of the table:

tour3 tour4

We also tried out a tour of our outdoor sculptures, many of which are gorgeously tactile – and one of which encourages some rather “intimate” encounters:

IMG_6751 IMG_6747

After that, we were ready for the touch tours! We had about 15 visitors over two sessions, and they all had a chance to handle several objects and to talk to conservators, collections staff and volunteers at the Polar Museum. One of the most popular objects was an Inuit carving called Unexplainable Joy of Becoming Grandparents:


Although the sculpture is mainly made from serpentine, the faces are inlaid in reindeer antler. The tactile contrast between the cool, smooth stone and the warm, slightly ridged antler is wonderful. The subject (the bond between grandparents and their grandchildren) is also a universal one and led to interesting discussions and recollections from the visitors.

We all really enjoyed putting together our first touch tour of the Polar Museum collections, and look forward to running more next year – watch this space!


Friday fun: homemade hats for heroes

Friday, October 9th, 2015

We’ve been celebrating National Knitting Week at the Polar Museum all week! On Monday, I blogged about a pair of balaclavas that were knitted by the Empress Eugénie and her ladies for the crew of the British Arctic Expedition of 1875-6.

On Tuesday, we welcomed some new woolly residents to the museum: a set of three miniature knitted explorers from the Heroic Age of Scott and Shackleton, together with six huskies, a pony, two sledges and lots of skis and ski poles. These have all been knitted for us by the immensely talented Eileen, and are full of accurate detail:


You can read more about our new woolly team members and what they will be doing in a new blog by our Education Officer, Naomi.

One of the great things about these figures is that everything they’re wearing has been hand-knitted – including the hand-knitted items! I tied myself in knots this morning, thinking about the meta implications of this (and the possibility of knitting a knitted figure that was wearing a knitted hat…) before deciding that recursive knitting was probably too silly a topic even for a Friday Fun blog post.


If you’ve been inspired by these pictures to try out some Heroic Age fashions, then you’ve come to the right place, especially as today is also Woolly Hat Day! While Greta was at the Science and Society conference in Durham recently, she picked up a flyer for an exhibition about Antarctica that is currently on at the Palace Green Library. As part of the exhibition, they are encouraging people to knit hats based on ones worn by Ernest Shackleton and Tom Crean, in order to raise money for the charity Walking with the Wounded. If you would like to join in, you can download the patterns from the website here.

When I saw the pattern, I thought that Tom Crean’s hat in particular looked very familiar. It’s exactly the same hat that he’s wearing in one of our archive photos:

Tom Crean. SPRI Picture Library P66/19/6A
Tom Crean. SPRI Picture Library P66/19/6A

It’s a curious style of hat, more like a snood or hood than a traditional bobble hat. With its decorative tassels at the corners, the designer suggests that it might work equally well as a tea cosy – I’ll report back if I ever get round to knitting one!

A few weeks ago, I came across the Spring 2015 issue of Knitting Traditions magazine, which contains an entire section devoted to knits inspired by the poles. Among the many intriguing and historically-inspired designs are a headband, a pair of socks and a hat. But best of all, there is a pattern based on a pair of mittens belonging to Edward Mackenzie that is in the Polar Museum:


I have previously blogged about these mittens, and look forward to comparing this pattern with the actual mittens in our collection!

If you fancy a more modern hat, albeit one that’s still focused on Antarctica, this one allows you to display the entire continent on your crown:


It was designed and knitted by Ken Mankoff, a geoscientist at Pennsylvania State University, during a long season of fieldwork in Antarctica. The long days (and nights) at the poles, not to mention the isolation, seem to be conducive to knitting: while researching this article, I discovered the Antarctica Knitters group, who spend their downtime on the ice creating beautiful patterns inspired by the landscape around them.

So, if you’re a knitter, I hope this post has inspired you to knit something polar-themed … and if you’re not a knitter, I promise that the blog will be free of woolly things next week. Happy Knitting Week!


Imperial hats and polar sheep

Tuesday, October 6th, 2015

Yesterday saw the start of National Knitting Week (5-11 October), so I thought this would be a good opportunity to blog about some of the knitted items from our collections. We have lots of woolly or knitted things in the Polar Museum, dating from between the mid-nineteenth and late twentieth centuries. Obviously, sheep are not indigenous to the polar regions, so these objects were all made elsewhere and taken to the Arctic or Antarctic during expeditions. (In fact, there are sheep in the subarctic Americas and on the subantarctic South Georgia, where they were imported to provide food for the whaling stations; their presence is reflected in the name of Sheep Point, on the northern coast of South Georgia. Incidentally, polar fleece, which you might think comes from polar sheep, is actually made more prosaically from PET – the same plastic that water bottles are made from.)

N:994 Y: 51/1/12

The pictures above show two balaclavas presented to the British Arctic Expedition by the Empress Eugénie, wife of Napoleon III of France. Following her husband’s deposition in 1870 during the Franco-Prussian war, Eugénie fled to England, where she settled in Chislehurst. Eugénie already had a track record in hat design as the populariser of the “Eugénie hat“, so it is perhaps unsurprising that she decided to support the British Arctic Expedition of 1875-6 by providing its members with headgear. Albert Markham, second-in-command to George Nares, remembered the gift with (intentionally punning?) gratitude:

The name of her Imperial Majesty the Empress Eugénie must always be associated with the expedition as one of its warmest friends. Her kind and considerate present, consisting of a fine woollen cap for each individual, contributed materially to our comfort whilst engaged in the onerous duties of sledging.

Albert Hastings Markham, The Great Frozen Sea: A Personal Narrative of the Voyage of the ‘Alert’ (1878) [my emphases]

Considering that the other donations recorded by Markham include magic lanterns, books, games, a piano, four bottles of “excellent punch” and “a complete set of instruments for a drum-and-fife band”, Eugénie’s gift must have been welcomed for its practicality! Certainly, Nares was prudent enough to name the Empress Eugénie Glacier after his benefactor:

This, the largest discharging glacier on the west shore of Smith Sound, was named after the Empress Eugénie; who, besides taking a personal interest in the expedition by her thoughtful present of a number of homely but most useful articles, added considerably to the comfort and amusement of each individual.

George S. Nares, Official Report of the Recent Arctic Expedition (1876)

I don’t know exactly how the Empress contributed to the “amusement of each individual” on the expedition, but I wonder if the hats themselves were the source of the hilarity. Balaclava helmets are named for the Battle of Balaclava in the Crimean War, because civilians were encouraged to knit hats to government-approved patterns and send them to the troops at the front. These hats were not called “balaclavas” until several decades later, however, being known originally as “helmet caps”. Following the Empress’s gift to the British Arctic Expedition, these helmet caps became “Eugenie wigs” or just “Eugenies” in nineteenth-century naval slang. I can certainly imagine the “amusement” that Nares’ crew might have derived from this irreverent terminology!


Summer at the Polar Museum

Tuesday, September 8th, 2015

As if on cue, the sun disappeared and a chill was in the air as the summer holidays ended. It is amazing to think it was only weeks ago that we were enjoying a summer of ice experiments to keep cool!

We launched the summer with the Big Weekend back in July where hundreds of children joined the University of Cambridge Museums in the ‘Make and Create Tent’ on Parkers Piece to discover how Polar Bears keep warm in icy conditions and make an origami penguin or two.

Inspired by the our summer exhibition ‘Ice Limit’ a series of works by artist Emma Stibbon, the main activities of the summer focused on the joining of art and science. On the 5th August we opened our doors to the ‘Drawing Out Science Activity Day’ where the children of Cambridge learnt all about the science and mythology of the Polar Auroras and even drew their own with hidden pictures below in UV pens for other to uncover their Aurora stories.



And our Polar Science Lego was used to make photo stories too.


As well as producing our summer exhibition, Emma Stibbon also ran art workshops with children aged 7 – 13, introducing the art of science observation drawing using rocks and fossils from ours and The Sedgwick Museum’s collection.


But the summer could not be over without a mention of Shackleton’s Endurance expedition during the centenary. Our very own storyteller Naomi Chapman told the story of the crushing of ship in the ice using a ‘model’ Endurance made out of yellow foam and pink pipe cleaners to demonstrate the effects of ice on the boat. Every child and parent got together to help ‘push’ the ship out of the ice, but alas to no avail.



But now, although the summer might be over, there are still more activities to come with the Festival of Ideas only just over a month away. Hopefully see some of you then.


Family ties

Monday, April 6th, 2015

(SPRI Museum Y: 2005/7/11)

When museums all over the world celebrated Museum Week, a Twitter campaign which asked us to consider our collections in terms of themes, we were inspired by the theme of ‘Family’, and we have contemplated our stores and found some fascinating stories in our Inuit art collection about the way the art of carving is passed on through families.

A number of families across the Canadian Arctic have become well known as carvers since the artform became established in the early 1950s, with skills handed on from one generation to the next. For example, Goota Ashoona is a third-generation artist. She is the daughter of Kiawak Ashoona and the granddaughter of Pitseolak Ashoona. She works with her husband, son and nephew in their family studio in Cape Dorset.

Pitseolak Ashoona, born on Nottingham Island, Hudson Strait in 1904, died at Cape Dorset on 28 May, 1983. She carved this Head of a Giant from green serpentinite.


(SPRI Museum Y: 2014/1/28)

Ningeosiak Ashoona (b. 1979), the youngest daughter in the family, learned to carve from her father, and by watching her mother Mayoreak. She started carving when she was 13 or 14. Very few women carve now, other than Ovilu Tunnillie and Mary Oshutsiaq. While she has tried drawing, it does not hold as much appeal for Ning as for her sister Siassie Keneally or her cousins, Annie Pootoogook and Shuvinai Ashoona.

Here is one of Ning Ashoona’s characteristic works, a loon in dark green steatite from 2009.






Shorty Killiktee (1949-1993) was another a well-known carver from Cape Dorset, renowned by collectors for his depiction of birds. His legacy is continued by his son Simeonie Killiktee (b. 1973) whom he taught to sculpt at the age of seven, and by the dynamic young carver Toono Sharky (b. 1970), his nephew.

Inuit Art photographed for SPRI HLF Collecting Cultures project

Bird with fish by Shorty Killiktee (SPRI Museum Y: 2014/1/28)





(SPRI Museum Y: 2010/10/62)

Here is a carving called ‘Sea Spirit’ by Toonoo Sharky, also of Cape Dorset, an Inuit hamlet in Nunavut, Canada, famous for its artistic tradition.

Largely self-taught, Toonoo Sharky (b. 1970) began carving at the age of ten, influenced by his uncle Shorty Killiktee. Toonoo first exhibited his work at the age of seventeen, leaving school early to carve full time. He is now the leading young Inuit carver of his generation, and his works are beginning to attract high prices among collectors. His father, Josephee Sharky (1942-1979), and grandfather Sharky Nuna (1918-1979), were both talented carvers but were drowned in a hunting accident. His mother was the daughter of master carver Kuppapik Ragee; his younger brother, Napachie Sharky (b. 1971) has also emerged as a bright new carving talent.

Working primarily in serpentine stone and marble, Toonoo Sharky’s compositions ‘use an interesting juxtaposition of sturdiness and fragility’. He is fascinated with spirit beings and his themes often include vivid treatments of wildlife. While he decides what to carve depending on the shape of the stone, his ‘favourite subjects include birds with a fish or lemming and animal/human spirit transformations thus expressing the age old Inuit belief in the inherent spiritual unity of nature’.

Sharky certainly represents a new generation of artists. For his grandfather, carving was something he came to later in life after years of living on the land in the traditional Inuit way. Two generations later, Toonoo Sharky has grown up surrounded by artists, instilling an entirely new perspective into his art. Sharky’s work has been widely shown, included in exhibitions across Canada and the US as well as in France and Germany. He was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy in 2003.

Toonoo’s younger brother Napachie Sharky has also taken up the art of carving, though at a later age than Toonoo. Here is a piece of his called ‘My first ski-doo ride’.

Inuit Art photographed for SPRI HLF Collecting Cultures project

(SPRI Museum Y: 2010/10/57)


Napachie’s interest in the world around him is evident in his range of subjects. He is perhaps best known for his carvings of birdlife, for which his open, delicate style is ideally suited. ‘Napachie is now well-known for making bird carvings, whose knife-edge wings are so thin they are sometimes translucent when held up to the sunlight’. This degree of craftsmanship takes a great deal of skill, proof of his emerging talent. In recent years he has begun carving objects that look to the future as well as the past. His miniature depictions of modern everyday life – the ski-doo ride, or a hunter with a rifle – with their small parts and fine detailing are impressive workings of the stone.

Inuit Art photographed for SPRI HLF Collecting Cultures project

(SPRI Museum Y: 2010/10/77)

Another community in the Canadian Arctic famous for its Inuit art is Baker Lake, which is home to Louie Arnayuirnaaq, who is the son of one of Baker Lake’s most well-known artists, Toona Iquliq (b. 1935). He was adopted by Yvonne Kanayuq Arnakyuinak and Paul Arnakyuinak, who are also carvers in Baker Lake. His brother Johnny Iquliq (1966-1996) and sister Camille Iquliq (1963-2005) were also carvers.

Here is one of his sculptures held in the collection of the museum, entitled ‘Mother and child (child in amauti)’

Louie has become renowned for his basaltic carvings, with throat singers and family groups most common. His mother and child sculptures have become his signature. An amauti is the type of parka worn by Inuit women of the eastern Canadian Arctic. Up until about two years of age, the child nestles against the mother’s back in the amaut, the built-in baby pouch just below the hood. The pouch is large and comfortable for the baby, and the mother can bring the child from back to front for breast-feeding without exposure to the elements.

Baker Lake is the English name given to Qamanittuaq, which is translated as ‘where the river widens’ (population 1,728 in 2006). It is located on the lake’s northwest shore near the mouth of the Thelon River, some 320 km inland from the west coast of the Hudson Bay, and it is the Canadian province of Nunavut’s only inland community. Southern influence has been felt in the area for almost a century. In 1916 the Hudson’s Bay Company established a trading post at the mouth of the Kazan River, which flows into Baker Lake from the south. Twenty years later, the Hudson’s Bay Company set up shop and soon traders and Anglican and Roman Catholic missionaries would follow. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police established a temporary base at the east end of the lake in 1915, moving to the present settlement of Qamanittuaq in 1930. When children from the region were brought in for school in the 1950s parents eventually moved as well in order to keep their families together.

Joy Martin and Heather Lane