Inuksuk for British Museum’s 2020 Arctic exhibition

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Under the direction of Piita Irniq, front left, British Museum curator Ian Taylor, left, conservator Tomasina Munden and curator Amber Lincoln built an inuksuk which will be featured in a planned 2020 exhibition about the history of the Arctic through the lens of weather and climate.
photo courtesy British Museum

While building an inuksuk on the land can take Piita Irniq an hour or two, building one at the British Museum in London required considerable logistics.

“Building an inuksuk outside my homeland normally takes a lot of time,” said Irniq.

Many emails are exchanged in advance, in this case with curator of the Americas section of the museum Amber Lincoln.

The right rock must be found, such as the Kentish ragstone supplied by the Gallagher Group from its Hermitage Quarry 50 miles outside London.

Irniq, Lincoln, stone conservator Tomasina Munden, curator Ian Taylor and videographers Sian Toogood and Lee Roberts travelled together by train.

“Here I had to build the inuksuk on the spot to make sure I knew how to put it back together when it gets to the location. As an inuksuk maker I already visualize in my head, with my eyes, what the inuksuk is going to look like,” said Irniq.

But safety consideration at the quarry meant many rules, including wearing steel-toed boots and hardhats – and not being able to go into the quarry.

“Which is new to me, because my eyes did all the work in this particular case – which particular rock is going to be the foundation, which is going to be a part of the inuksuk. I didn’t pick up any rocks at all. It made it a little more difficult,” said Irniq, who has built inuksuit all over North and South America and Europe.

British Museum videographers Sian Toogood and Lee Roberts, Piita irniq, conservator Tomasina Munden and curator Ian Taylor pick pout Kentish ragstone at the Gallagher Group’s Hermitage Quarry 50 miles outside London to build an inuksuk for a 2020 exhibition about the history of the Arctic through the lens of Indigenous circumpolar people, weather and climate.
photo courtesy British Museum

Lincoln explains the inuksuk will be part of an exhibition, which is “still very much a work in progress.”

“The working title is Arctic Homelands, Changing Climates but that is not yet determined. The exhibition will be on display at the British Museum May 28 to August 23 in 2020. It focuses on the history of the Arctic through the lens of weather and climate, so it is a circumpolar emphasis,” she said.

“The exhibition will focus on human ecology – the ability to harness ice and weather conditions to create captivating traditions and artistic expressions.

“The exhibition will explore the Arctic through the diverse perspectives of its Indigenous peoples. Themes will include food and resources, human/animal relationships, ecological knowledge, and artistic and story-telling practices.”

Irniq, Lincoln, Munden and Taylor took a whole day to build the inuksuk. Irniq also spoke with an assembled crowd of roughly 70 people gathered near the museum’s Inuit exhibit, sharing Inuit history and culture, as well as Inuit dreams and aspirations – which can be summed up with his well-known words: “Iglu to internet in less than 60 years.”

‘I know my ancestors have survived here’

“The inuksuk is a silent messenger for Inuit, a voiceless land marker built by Inuit for many thousands of years. It symbolizes the survival of Inuit. Without inuksuit, Inuit would have never survived. It is normally built in areas of good fishing, good seal hunting, good caribou hunting, and crossing places (alluit)” he says, adding that when he is around inuksuit on the land he is never scared.

“I know my ancestors have survived here.”

Irniq says inuksuit can be likened to a traditional GPS for Inuit, and the “look-through window” is like a telescope.

“The way southern Canadians or Europeans get the message is when I say It’s kind of like for you, travelling on the major highways and you see McDonald’s (golden arches). In modernity, you travel on a major highway and you see a McDonald’s, you know you’re going to eat,” Irniq says.

He also point out inuksuit should not be confused with inunnguat (imitation of a person), which have arms and leg and indicate a murder or suicide took place.

“You don’t see those very often on the land,” he said.

Lincoln says the British Museum is also consulting with a few Arctic communities, “who we hope will contribute to the exhibition as part of ongoing research partnerships and museum documentation collaborations.”

The list of collaborators so far includes the Shishmaref Erosion and  Relocation Coalition of Shishmaref, Alaska, an Inupiat village, the Inuit Circumpolar Council-Alaska,  several people from the Mittimatalik Arnait Muqsuqtuit Collective, and the International Reindeer Herders Association of Kautokeino, Norway.

“We are also in the process of commissioning works of art by indigenous artists, including Piita Irniq. Others are, master Sakha carver Fedor Markov, and we are working with the Embassy of Imagination to collaborate with a youth group of Kinngait in order to create a large art piece for the exhibition.”

For Irniq, travelling the globe sharing Inuit pride and stories, whether with organizations and museums, or shopkeepers and restaurant staff, is an adventure.

“I have lots of adventures,” he said.

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Michele LeTourneau first arrived at NNSL's headquarters in Yellowknife in1998, with a BA honours in Theatre. For four years she documented the arts across the Northwest Territories and Nunavut. Following a very short stint as a communications officer with the Government of the Northwest Territories, Michele spent a decade at a community-based environmental monitoring board in the mining industry, where she worked with Inuit, Chipewyan, Tlicho, Yellowknives Dene and Metis elders to help develop traditional knowledge and Inuit Qaujimajatuqangit contributions for monitoring and management plans. She rejoined NNSL and moved to Iqaluit in May 2014 to write for Nunavut News. Michele has received a dozen awards for her work with NNSL.