Peary MacMillan Arctic Museum
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Exhibitions
Beautiful Utility: A Look at Inuit Crafts
June 1, 2005 - September 1, 2005
Arctic Museum main galleries

Northern people have a long tradition of fashioning practical objects for everyday use and for trade, and more recently for sale. These objects are often skillfully made and elaborately decorated, in traditional or innovative styles. This exhibit looks at a selection of crafts that incorporate the essential everyday skills that men and women alike must master in order to survive in the Arctic.

Inuit create items of all sizes by hand. They make large kayaks, sledges, dog harnesses, tents and snow houses; more modest sized objects, such as dolls and clothing made of skin and cloth; and tiny creations such as decorative beadwork, leather mosaic and embroidery. The people have crafted some types of objects for thousands of years. Others, such as woven baskets of baleen and embroidery, are more recent traditions.

Examples of Inuit crafts may be seen in the Museum galleries. This exhibit is made possible through the generous support of the Friends of Bowdoin College.



Pictured above: Building a kayak frame, Northwest Greenland, ca. 1935. Inkjet print from photograph in the Robert Abram Bartlett Papers, Special Collections and Archives, Bowdoin College Library.
<p><b>Dolls for Learning and Pleasure</b> </p>   Dolls, once made as toys and teaching tools to help young Inuit girls learn about their role in the world, became trade items and souvenirs in the twentieth century. Elizabeth Green of Nain, Labrador shows off a family of dolls nestled among Icelandic poppies. By 1939, when this photograph was taken, Elizabeth’s family was making dolls for trade.   <br> <br>  Elizabeth Green with dolls, Nain, Labrador, 1939. Inkjet print from negative by Donald MacMillan. Gift of Donald and Miriam MacMillan.
<p><b>Sewing for Warmth and Strength</b> </p>   Both men and women learned to sew skin and leather to create essential items for everyday life. Here, women sewing skins and a man making a harness work together in the bright sunlight of a Northwest Greenland summer.  <br> <br>  Sewing outdoors, Northwest Greenland, ca. 1935. Inkjet prints from photographs in the Robert Abram Bartlett Papers, Special Collections and Archives, Bowdoin College Library.

<p><b>Sewing for Warmth and Strength</b> </p>   Both men and women learned to sew skin and leather to create essential items for everyday life. Here, women sewing skins and a man making a harness work together in the bright sunlight of a Northwest Greenland summer.  <br> <br>  Close-up of man in polar bearskin pants, working on harness, Northwest Greenland, ca. 1935. Inkjet prints from photographs in the Robert Abram Bartlett Papers, Special Collections and Archives, Bowdoin College Library.
<p><b>Sewing Skin, Cloth and Fur</b> </p>   This woman's tall boots are pieced together from two or three seal skins, sewn together with tiny stitches for maximum water- and wind-proofing. The fur is worn on the inside for warmth. Her harlequin-pattern cloth parka and fur pants required different sewing techniques.   <br> <br>  Woman sewing skins, Northwest Greenland, ca. 1935. Inkjet print from photograph in the Robert Abram Bartlett  Papers, Special Collections and Archives, Bowdoin College Library.

<p><b>Amautik: Woman’s Parka with Style and Spirit</b> </p>   The traditional woman's parka, called an amautik, was fashioned from skins and furs. It did more than just keep its wearer warm. Through its decoration, which mimics the joints of the animal, the parka brought its wearer closer to the spirit of the animals whose skins and fur went into making it.  <br> <br>  Woman in fur amautik (front view), Nain, Labrador, ca. 1925. Inkjet print from photograph by Donald MacMillan. Gift of Donald and Miriam MacMillan.
<p><b>Amautik: Woman's Parka Keeps Child Warm, Too</b> </p>   The exquisite details of this parka with its long tail show off the fine decoration many women added to their clothing. The generous size of the upper back and hood is designed to cover an infant carried on the woman's back. This woman wore her amautik over a cloth skirt rather than the traditional fur trousers. <br> <br>  Woman in amautik (rear view), Baffin Island, ca. 1931. Inkjet print from photograph by Donald MacMillan, Gift of Miriam Look MacMillan.

<p><b>Amautik: Woman's Parka Keeps Child Warm, Too</b> </p>   Nestled against its mother's back, the infant is securely held by the strap that can be seen fastened to a toggle on the parka's front.  <br> <br>  Two women in amautik, one with a baby 'in her hood', Canada, ca. 1920. Inkjet print from photograph by Donald MacMillan. Gift of Donald and Miriam MacMillan.
<p><b>Beadwork: An Adopted Decorative Tradition</b> </p>   The colorful patterns of this woman's cloth shirt are set off by an intricate beaded collar. Women began making these collars in Greenland in the nineteenth century. By the time this photograph was taken, the costume was considered Greenland's national festive dress.   <br> <br>   Woman in Greenlandic costume with beaded collar, Holsteinborg, West Greenland, 1926. Inkjet print from glass lantern slide by Donald MacMillan. Gift of Donald and Miriam MacMillan.

<p><b>Kayaks for Hunting</b> </p>   The light and maneuverable kayak is primarily used for sea hunting by one man.  The frame is pieced together from many pieces of driftwood, branches, or milled wood especially imported for kayaks, or even from barrel hoops and staves.   <br> <br>   Building a kayak frame, Northwest Greenland, ca. 1935. Inkjet print from photograph in the Robert Abram Bartlett Papers, Special Collections and Archives, Bowdoin College Library.
<p><b>Making a Cockpit Coaming</b> </p>   This man is bending wood, pre-softened by steaming or chewing, into a hoop to form the 'coaming' for a kayak. The coaming reinforces the cockpit where the paddler sits. It also keeps water from filling the cockpit. Note the carpenter's saw and the simple clamps made of pieces of wood lashed together.  <br> <br>   Making a cockpit coaming for a kayak, Northwest Greenland, ca. 1935. Inkjet print from photograph in the Robert Abram Bartlett Papers, Special Collections and Archives, Bowdoin College Library.

<p><b>Kayak Frames and Skins</b> </p>   Women fitted, shaped and sewed pieces of sealskin together to form a tight-fitting sheath for the kayak frame. First they scraped the skins free of fur and chewed them to soften them. Then they stretched and sewed them over the driftwood frame, working quickly so that the skins would not dry out before they were in place.  <br> <br>  Sheathing the kayak, East Greenland, ca. 1935. Inkjet print from photograph in the Robert Abram Bartlett Papers, Special Collections and Archives, Bowdoin College Library.
<p><b>Kayak Frames and Skins</b> </p>   One man uses a drill, piercing the frame in order to add a reinforcing piece of wood or to make more lashing points for the sinew that holds the frame together. Once repaired, the kayak frame can be re-covered with skins. This is done every two to three years over the life of the kayak.  The men wear decorated cloth parkas with pointed hoods and sealskin boots, typical of Baffin Island warm-weather attire.  <br> <br>  Repairing a kayak frame, Baffin Island, July 28, 1922. Inkjet print from negative by Donald MacMillan. Gift of Donald and Miriam MacMillan.

<p><b>Building a Snow House</b> </p>   Northern hunters built snow houses as temporary shelters when traveling in late winter and spring. People in some parts of the Arctic also used them as their primary winter-season dwellings. Using a snow knife, men cut blocks of hard snow that they set into a circle and raised into a dome. The snow house made an excellent shelter - so wind-tight that vent holes were essential. The word igloo, used for snow house, comes from the Inuktituk word iglu, meaning simply house.  <br> <br>   Building a snow house, Schooner Harbour, Baffin Island, March 29, 1922. Inkjet print from negative by Donald MacMillan. Gift of Donald and Miriam MacMillan.