It started with a pretty innocent question at the top of an email in March, just one month after I started my job at the Museum: ‘are there sculptures at the Scott Polar Research Institute?’
I knew that much. It was plain to me and anyone else who had visited the Museum at SPRI that we have sculpture in the collection. In fact, SPRI has in its care one of the largest collections of Inuit sculpture in Great Britain. But, what I didn’t know was just what other sorts of sculpture we have at SPRI, and how many sculptures are there in total.
The original question came from Art UK, a national arts charity with a global reach and an ambitious mission ‘to open up art in public collections for enjoyment, learning and research.’ SPRI worked with Art UK in 2016 to showcase some of the paintings in our art collection alongside those from more than 3000 other collections across the UK: https://artuk.org/discover/artworks/search/collections:scott-polar-research-institute-university-of-cambridge/page/3
However, this time round Art UK is interested in getting some of our more three-dimensional artworks out there. This new project is part of a wider, three-year national effort to digitise 170,000 sculptures of all types from public collections around the country.
The first task, then, was for me to put together a working list of all the items in our care that Art UK regard as sculpture. The only major caveats for this were that 1) the items had to have been made in the last 1000 years, and 2) nothing made of ivory, bone, jade or wax was to be included. The first condition wasn’t going to be much of a problem for us—aside from a few small archaeological pieces and geological specimens, the collections at SPRI don’t go back more than a few centuries. But, avoiding ivory and bone was going to be difficult: indigenous carvers and artists from across the Arctic have long used the bones and ivory from the tusks and teeth of marine mammals traditionally hunted as part of their subsistence diet for raw materials. Understandably, Art UK are concerned to avoid showing-off materials coming from contentious sources, such as ivory from protected species like the endangered African elephant, but the marine ivory at SPRI is from permitted indigenous sources and so is less problematic.
Once the Museum Curator and I explained our case, Art UK were happy to make an exception for us. Now we were going to be able to showcase the best examples from the full range of sculptural items at SPRI. All I had to do was search exhaustively through our digital database, find everything that matched the Art UK definition of a sculpture—avoiding things that look too at home on nanna’s mantelpiece—and highlight the items that would benefit from new photography. Easy!
Well, not quite. As well as all the obvious things like the plaster busts of an Inuit woman and child made by Danish artist Eigil Knuth in 1937, I also had to consider whether the bronze bust by Kathleen Scott of her late husband that you can see above the front door of the building should be included. Does it count more as an architectural detail (not allowed) or a standalone artwork in its own right (definitely allowed). Tricky stuff, but you’ll have to wait and see what the final decision was on that one…
Once we had our final total of 145 items we were able to send the list and arrange the photoshoot with Art UK. Happily our own Josh Murfitt from the Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology was the one who answered the call, being contracted out by the charity to come for two days to help us capture all the details of the fabulous sculpture in our care.
We had great fun trying to figure out which was the back and which was the front of some of the more abstract pieces, and we even made a few discoveries about some of them along the way. One carving inscribed on both sides with Inuktitut syllabic script—the symbols used to represent the syllables in the Inuit language—had no known artist or date. In the process of turning it round to check it for inscriptions, we saw the syllabic signature of the artist, Tumasi Kala, on the base. Other items were so large and bulky we needed a trolley to move them the few metres from our store to the temporary photo studio space that Josh had set up. It was backbreaking work, but I can’t wait to see the final results. Watch this space!