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For one week only… 3 Siberian objects on display in The Polar Museum

Thursday, September 18th, 2014

This week, we are preparing a number of beautiful objects from our reserve collections to be sent to the Manchester Museum for an exhibition  ‘Siberia: At the Edge of the World’ which opens 4 October 2014 – 1 March 2015.

Until Saturday 20 September, we have put other similar objects on display in the museum.


Nentsy knife with sheath. SPRI Museum: N: 373a-b. Given by Mrs F. G. Jackson, 1939

This Nentsy knife with sheath from the Yamal region would have been used for ceremonial purposes. The Yamal Peninsula is a stretch of peatland that extends from northern Siberia into the Kara Sea, far above the Arctic Circle. To the east lie the shallow waters of the Gulf of Ob; to the west, the Baydaratskaya Bay, which is ice-covered for most of the year. Yamal in the language of the Nenets means the end of the world.


Hair Ornaments. SPRI Museum N: 384f-h. Given by Mrs F. G. Jackson, 1939

These hair ornaments are made of brass, beads and sinew, and were worn by Nentsy women to decorate their plaits. These examples were collected by Frederick George Jackson during his 3000 mile sledge-journey across the frozen tundra of Siberia in 1893–94.  The Nenets, also known as Samoyed, are an  indigenous people of the Russsian far north, whose main subsistence comes from hunting and reindeer herding.

Bridget Cusack
Museum Development Coordinator

An Inuit Master Carver: Niviaksiak (1908–1959)

Monday, August 11th, 2014

A visit by Mr Ian Miller on 6 August 2014 to investigate our Inuit Art collection sparked an interesting line of research. He brought with him a range of very interesting Inuit carvings from his own collection, including a sculpture of a hunter which he wanted particularly to compare with one in The Polar Museum, which he had found in our online catalogue.


Above: carving of a hunter carrying a cub, Niviaksiak, Polar Museum Y: 2010/10/82

When placed side by side, it was immediately evident that these pieces were by the same hand and our Keeper of Collections, Heather Lane, was delighted to be able to confirm the identity of the stonecarver.

The Polar Museum sculpture next to Ian Miller's piece

Above: the Polar Museum's carving (left) next to Ian Miller's sculpture

Niviaksiak was born in 1908 and died in 1959 whilst hunting a polar bear. His early death ended a promising career as an artist. A renowned sculptor, Niviaksiak was one of the first Inuit artists to make a print and, despite his short career in the early and experimental period of the Cape Dorset co-operative, he made some extraordinary works. Cape Dorset (now called Kinngait) was the first community to attempt printmaking, under the enthusiastic leadership of James Houston, an artist and employee of the Department of Northern Affairs. The earliest experiments used sealskin stencils (later replaced by stencil paper) and stonecuts. The sources for the earliest images were incised tusks and inlaid sealskin designs. Houston encouraged people to draw, and purchased drawings as resources for the printmakers. Their first collection was released in 1959 and immediately sold well to enthusiastic audiences in the south. Copperplate engraving was introduced in 1961, and lithography in 1962 by Terry Ryan, who followed Houston as the artists’ principal advisor. Cape Dorset prints are still released in annual catalogued collections, and remain among the most sought after by collectors.

Kinngait (population 1,240 in 2006) is now a thriving regional centre for arts and tourism. The Hudson's Bay Company had established a trading post here in 1913. A Roman Catholic mission was established in 1938 but closed in 1960 as the majority of the residents are of the Anglican faith. In 1953, the Inuit of Cape Dorset built the Anglican Church on their own initiative. In the same year, the artist James Houston arrived in the community, having already spent some time in Arctic Quebec investigating, on behalf of the Canadian Handicrafts Guild, the potential for Inuit Art. He and his wife Alma, together with their sons, spent ten years in Cape Dorset, finding gifted artists, encouraging carving and handicraft production and, after a research period in Japan, introduced print-making to broaden the artistic horizons of the Inuit in Cape Dorset. As a result, the West Baffin Eskimo Cooperative was formally founded in 1959. In that year the first major exhibition of Cape Dorset Inuit sculpture was held at the Stratford Festival in Ontario, Canada. It was a success and carving and graphic art have now become the economic mainstay of the community.

Time Magazine reported Niviaksiak’s passing in 1960:

No artists live a more hazardous life. In the last year, two of Cape Dorset's twelve printmakers have met death on the ice fields. One of the deaths has given the new art form its first legend. Niviaksiak, 51, was already a famous carver when he took up prints. Of all the subjects he portrayed, the one that preyed most on his mind was bears. During the last months of his life, he pondered deeply on the soul of the great, inscrutable polar bear. Three months ago Niviaksiak and a young companion were tracking a bear. After several hours they finally caught sight of him. As they crept closer, the bear, instead of running, turned and gazed squarely at them. Niviaksiak moved in, raised his rifle to fire, then faltered and shrieked: ‘It's dark. I'm falling!’ Without firing, he collapsed on the snow, died within minutes. The next day, when Niviaksiak's companion and others returned to bury him, they found his body unmauled; the bear had not even come near him. Among Cape Dorset people there was only one explanation: Niviaksiak's art had probed too near, had offended the spirit of the great polar bear.

Niviaksiak Man at Seal Hole

Niviaksiak’s artwork has become highly prized by collectors in recent years. In 2008, at the Waddington’s annual auction in Toronto, the striking image in brilliant blue of a hunter waiting to strike – Man Hunting at a Seal Hole in the Ice – a 1959 skin stencil from the inaugural Cape Dorset collection, was finally sold for $64,600 CAD including buyer’s premium, a record price at auction for an Inuit graphic.

Impressions of Man Hunting at a Seal Hole are in The Samuel and Esther Sarick Collection which was donated to the Art Gallery of Ontario. In 1959, Niviaksiak’s print Polar Bear and Cub was used for a Christmas card for the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which also holds a copy.

Left: Man Hunting at a Seal Hole in the Ice by Niviaksiak (1959)


Working with our collections: Hannah Rickards

Wednesday, July 9th, 2014

On Spatial Configurations, 2014

The Scott Polar Research Institute includes a polar library, which includes the Shackleton Memorial Library, and has comprehensive holdings of scholarly books and journals on polar research, with exceptional archival collections from the exploration of the Antarctic and Arctic. Part of the Inspire Libraries scheme, anyone with an interest in the polar regions is most welcome to use the library for reference. This year we have been delighted to welcome Hannah Rickards, one of the artists in residence from the North West Cambridge Artist Programme who had been spending time in the library and archives.

On Spatial Configurations represents one of the outcomes of Hannah Rickards’ research at the Cambridge University’s Department of Earth Sciences during her 2013 residency and takes the form of a double-sided poster. It follows, and in part reflects, a screening of Michael Snow’s 1971 film, La Region Centrale exploring the relationship between geological time, landscape and the moving image.

DSC_6215      DSC_6218

On Spatial Configurations, Hannah Rickards, 2014

During her residency, Hannah Rickards spent time researching in the libraries of both the Earth Sciences department and the Scott Polar Research Institute, and she became fascinated by the different scales and inscriptions of time she found in the images of geological strata and landscapes in Geological Journals in both libraries.

“I am interested in the notion of geological time and its duration in relation to recording media: to moving image, photography or sound and to the relationship between the still and the moving image. My interest is therefore in how the application of a geological temporality might affect a reading of landscape and space in relation to a sense of time, with the objects, landscapes, spaces and materials themselves being recordings of a process.”

Hannah Rickards work deals with perception and its description; with how one can translate an encounter – be that with a sound, an object, a space or an image. In particular, she has explored the relationship between atmospheric phenomena and experience of them (a sound heard accompanying the aurora borealis, a remembered image of a mirage, a thunderclap re-performed by a musical ensemble) in installation, video, text and sound works.


‘Unidentified landscape, bizarre iceberg’, watercolour. One of a collection of 81 watercolours and drawings by Sir John Ross, while on his second voyage in search of a North-West Passage, 1829-33.

Her previous exhibitions include Thunder, a performance part of the Contemporary Art Society Centenary Programme, Pier Arts Centre, Orkney 2010; Chasing Napoleon, Palais de Tokyo, Paris 2009-2010; No, there was no red. Max Mara Art Prize for Women, Whitechapel Gallery, London 2009 and The Quick and the Dead, Walker Art Center, Minneapolis 2009

Posters are available from The Polar Museum, The Sedgwick Museum of Earth Sciences and Kettle’s Yard.

Bridget Cusack
Museum Development Coordinator

The journey of a new stamp collection

Tuesday, June 17th, 2014

Hannah Carney, Creative Apprentice, University of Cambridge Museums


The Polar Museum’s new exhibition is Delivery by Design: Stamps in Antarctica and I was lucky enough to go and see the stamps, printing proofs and the original artwork being moved from the British Library to The Polar Museum with the assistance of the Foreign Commonwealth Office.

Stamps 362

On 30 April, Bridget Cusack, The Polar Museum’s Development Coordinator and I went to the British Library in London to pick up the collection. We met with Ken Ball from Crown Agents, and Vicky Taylor and Paul Skinner from the British Library. Once everyone was there, we went up to Paul’s office to see and collect the stamps. The collection was in several envelopes and when we got to the office, staff from the British Library were writing a list of all the stamps that they  were going to hand over.

Stamps 382 

While the list was being typed up, Ken Ball suggested that we did a random sampling to see the condition of the stamps. I enjoyed this as I got to see the artwork up close and all the detail which went into it. I really liked looking at the printing proofs as you can see all the notes which were written for the printers.  I also thought that it was interesting to see the range of designs of the stamps, as there were the obvious designs like penguins and the less obvious ones such as the sea life of Antarctica.

Stamps 365

After we did the sampling Bridget, Vicky, Ken and Paul all signed the documents that they needed to. Then we had to load all the stamps into our means of transport for the day (Bridget’s car.) This was interesting as we had to fit all of the stamps into two boxes and load them into car. Once everything was safely and securely packed up it was time for the trip back.

Overall I really enjoyed this experience as it taught me a lot about moving objects, the logistics and the effort it takes to collect objects.