Eskimo Museum

In 2004, the Eskimo Museum celebrated its 60th Anniverary. Lorraine Brandson, curator of the museum, submitted this history as part of the regularly appearing ‘Carved From The Land’ series.

The Eskimo Museum was originally established by Roman Catholic missionaries working in the eastern and central Canadian Arctic. The Churchill mission served as the administrative headquarters for parishes spread from Gjoa Haven on King William Island to Pond Inlet on Baffin Island. The early missionaries, mostly French speaking had to adapt to many challenges, including learning a difficult new language (Inuktitut), acquiring and caching adequate food for the winter, and enduring often brutal weather conditions to visit people in different camps. They could not have survived without the assistance of the Inuit, who taught the missionaries a new way of life.

A certain respect came with these lessons, and experience gave way to insight and knowledge of the people who are indigenous to the North. Eventually it became a new “mission” to promote the creation of artworks representing the culture and worldview of the Inuit.

Starting a museum was the next logical step. The Eskimo Museum opened its doors in 1944 in a front room of the bishop’s residence here in Churchill. Various pelts of northern animals and a large walrus head from a 3000 pound animal sat next to an exquisite display of sculptures carved by the Inuit themselves. It is interesting to note here that the 1948-1949 time period – four to five years after the opening of the museum – is often regarded as the time of the “discovery” of Inuit art, following the visit of James Houston to Port Harrison and Povungnituk on eastern Hudson Bay, and that almost 25 years passed before public art galleries in southern Canada began to actively display and promote Inuit art.

When the museum opened the collection consisted mainly of walrus tusk ivory boards depicting scenes from daily life, some tools, and a few wildlife specimens. Father Jean Philippe was placed in charge of the museum, and Father Richard Ferron assisted him. But indeed – it is impossible to write about the Museum without talking about Brother Jacques Volant, o.m.i. (known by the Inuit as ‘Piku’).

Brother Volant was the cook at the mission at the time that the museum opened (and had 23 years’ experience in northern missions), and took a keen interest in it from the very beginning. In 1948, he was made responsible for the museum by the then bishop, and lovingly dedicated the rest of his working life (until 1986) to this task. Churchill oldtimers may remember Brother Volant’s passion for smoking the pipe and his daily noon hour walks on the rocks and seashore behind the mission.

By 1948 the military had been a part of Churchill life for six years, and many of the personnel were interested in Arctic survival. They were sent to the museum where they could see “carvings” and artifacts, watch home movies about the North, and talk to Brother Volant. Tourists and other visitors to the town were also directed to the museum, as were Inuit residents of the Kivalliq region on their way south or north, or to Fort Churchill to use the local health services.

In 1952 the museum outgrew its space in the mission, and was relocated to a building that was formally a warehouse. The building also contained administration offices for the Diocese, including the “Arctic Wings” airline office and the Eskimo magazine, still published today. Throughout this time more pieces had been added to the collection including more intricate scenes on single or double walrus tusk ivory boards from Pelly Bay (Kugaaruk) and Repulse Bay, prehistoric Dorset and Thule culture material from Igloolik, and more wildlife specimens. the Kivalliq region on their way south or north, or to Fort Churchill to use the local health services.

Still growing, the museum moved in 1962 to the building it is in today. This project was spearheaded by parish priest Fr René Belair, assisted by Brother Jean-Marie Tremblay and an Oblate crew from Montreal. The new display area had a couch and chair and all were invited to share Brother Volant’s reminisces about life in the North in the 20s and 30s. Who would have believed that the kayak in the museum was the same size as one Brother Volant saw entering the Churchill River from Baker Lake in the 1930s (complete with a family and a dog). A 15 day old stuffed polar bear stored behind glass (that actually looks more like an “ant eater” than a bear) still attracts the attention of tiny little eyes and, of course – grubby little fingers!

The museum was at that time a strange mixture of smells, resulting from the two sealskin kayaks, Brother Volant’s Colt cigars and numerous pipes.

By the mid-1960s the museum was becoming better known, and some of the pieces were requested for loans to national and international exhibits. The museum continues to purchase a small number of pieces each year that originate from the Circumpolar Arctic, including Russia, Alaska, the Canadian Arctic and Greenland, but emphasis has remained on collecting from the central and eastern Arctic in Canada, including Nunavik (Northern Quebec). Labeling of the sculptures not provided by the artists is kept to a minimum to avoid “exterior” interpretations.

Today museum staff members are constantly on the lookout for special pieces that will provide insight for the visitor into the history of and life in the North as seen through the eyes of the Inuit and expressed through original items produced by the Inuit.

- prepared by Lorraine Brandson

5 Responses to Eskimo Museum

  1. Emmy G. says:

    Thank you this article; it assisted me greatly in the creation of a project on the topic, which had been worrying me for quite some time, and the planning of a trip to Churchill.
    Thank you Ms. Brandson.

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  4. Tony says:

    Hi Leslie,
    I work for an Inuit art marketing company we are a wholesaler of Inuit art. We occasionally have requests for polar bears, if your interested I can speak with my superiors and possibly acquire it from you, I read your post and it would be a shame for something as beautiful as a polar bear to end up in the garbage when it can go to the hands of someone who will love it and take care of it.
    If you’re interested please contact me.

  5. Leslie Wedgewood says:

    My father left me with a polar bear skin/rug that he brought home in 1958 purchased from the Eskimos on the DEW Line in the Artic Circle. I have stored this folded into a large cedar chest since my father passed away in 1983. Even though I know this bear was killed for the Eskimos to survive I have a big problem with now owning it. I don’t want it to fall into the wrong hands and would donate it to a museum, or other historic place if it was needed. I would feel really awful about just putting it into a dumpster somewhere. Can you help to direct me to someone who would display it or use it for the right reasons? I live in Southern Ontario about an hour from Toronto.
    Thank you for any help you could give me.

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