Oxford researcher seeks the story of century-old artifacts in Nunavut
Rev. Peck, father of Inuktitut syllabics, collected miniature carvings
While some dream of a lavish, high-tech lifestyle, Oxford University graduate student and anthropologist Astrid Knight would probably rather be in a museum with century-old artifacts.
Her specialty is Inuit artifacts, specifically miniature carvings, and she’s in Nunavut to learn more about techniques used by Inuit artists in the making of these smaller-than-life models.
Knight plans to visit Pangnirtung this month, gathering information from elders, artists and the community members about these historic artifacts.
She’s circulating photos of 100-year-old miniature Inuit models such as an ivory muskox and a sled, which are still held in the Pitt Rivers museum in the UK today, to determine the makers.
This information can then lead a better knowledge of how and why they were made.
“To improve the use of these objects in museums, the project will seek out recommendations from community members on how museums can better describe and interpret these collections for visitors,” says Knight in her research project pamphlet.
And it’s important to know what people are seeing in museums. If it’s a miniature model or a sculpture or a toy, it makes a big difference according to Knight.
“What we present in museums changes what people believe,” said Knight at an information session in Iqaluit’s Nunavut Research Institute Sept. 11.
“Is it a toy, or is it a model? Sometimes it seems like semantics, like, who cares?” she said. “But it’s important in the museum itself, because by calling it a toy, it’s a very different experience than a carving or sculpture or model.”
“And especially in Pitt Rivers, as toys go to second floor, where there’s other gallery toys from all over the world. It then disappears from its use in a spiritual setting,” she said.
Knight said that culture must be represented correctly within these museums — she’s fascinated at how culture is expressed through these objects, a subject that led to her getting into the field in the first place.
Many museums hold historic Inuit-made models, but few are on display according to Knight. She also wants to share Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit and skills associated with making miniatures and models, something that’s missing from the museum at the moment.
Her research project is focused around Anglican missionary Edmund James Peck’s collection which is displayed at the Pitt Rivers Museum.
Peck, known in Inuktitut as Uqammaq (one who talks well), did development work on Inuktitut syllabics and compiled the first English-Inuktitut dictionary in the late 1800s.
At the turn of the last century, anthropologist Franz Boas also sent Peck to the Cumberland Sound to collect Inuit objects for the Pitt Rivers museum.
And with the help of people in Pangnirtung, Knight is hoping to know more about the origins and meanings of all Peck’s models and objects.
Although Knight knows that it may be hard to track down the makers of the century-old artifacts, she hopes a few tales from the community members may help her out.
“It was quite a few generations ago — [there’s] no one that is alive today. But people might have stories about the collectors and the people who they work with,” she said.