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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

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.