There is no grand architecture, no eye-catching exterior. It is a simple museum in a single room. Even the name is outdated, noticeably old-fashioned: the Eskimo Museum. No one would call it ostentatious. It is surprising, though, and there is more to it than its drab appearance suggests.
Each wall is stacked with glass cases of carvings, and in the middle of the room, two kayaks run beside a stuffed polar bear. More stuffed animals, posters, and rocks fill most of the room. The carvings can be realistic (incredibly detailled ivory birds perched in their cliffside colony) or whimsical (a walrus playing hockey). All of them vary in style, and though many would immediately be recognised as Inuit Art, others are less usual, such as the priest carvings, which look almost like classical busts, aside from one, whose fashionable green sunglasses set him apart! There are carvings of everything that the carvers would have seen in daily life, with some themes coming back more frequently than others — perhaps the hunt is most common, as well as the mother of all sea mammals.
The carvings most often seen in the south are animals, sometimes people, usually standing alone as though ready to have their portrait done. These are at the museum, but so are so many more, between decorated antlers, baleen silhouettes, and the long, dramatic scenes illustrated on a piece of walrus tusk. These are stories in the form of sculpture, and legends stand alongside domestic scenes or hunt. One depicts a man standing in surprise and amazement, to see his first airplane flying overhead. It is strange to see the igloo half-finished as the man stands distracted by the sound of the engines. The style is traditional, but the theme is clearly modern.
This is what makes the museum extraordinary, to my mind: it does not draw such a sharp distinction. The museum is short on interpretation, though the curator gives a very informative talk to new arrivals. I am used to everything being explained, and though some objects have signs beside them explaining their origins or the story behind the form, there does not seem to be such a strict order to things. A visitor can find their own way through, and there is always someone who can answer questions, but no dividing line between Tradition and Modernity, just as the introductory talk explains that they have not made that separation between Myth and Truth. It is a recent collection — dating back to the 1930s for most of the carvings, with some objects from the Dorset culture — but without dates, there is a sense of each one belonging to all time. Whether something is art or artefact does not matter, only what it says and the story it tells, nor does the question of nature or culture, as the animals and geological specimens can attest. There is even a trilobyte, and a chessboard that has igloos as rooks.
Among the carvings, everything is small. That is the effect of a long history of moving about — things are portable, save for those intended to stay in one place. The carving materials are mainly stone and bone, but there are also traded materials like clay. One carver even made two of his teeth, which he had had extracted, into figures, which are now at the museum. The walrus ivory may be the most remarkable, and its colour makes it ideal for polar bears, ice, terns and other things seen around here. In one case, the tusk is a lake or a pond, and a delicate, elegant loon is catching a fish. Its dive barely disturbs the surface, and when it flies away with its catch the motion is quick but understated. It is a scene that must happen often here. This one does not have people in it, nor the same action as many of the others, but it is quite appealing.
The museum is understated, but it will keep having more to say. At each visit I have learned something new.