Treasures and Trinkets: Collecting Culture in the North
examines the way northern craftspeople responded to the increasing demand for trade items from travelers. Trading was one of the first activities that took place between Inuit and early European explorers and by the nineteenth century, when tourists were just starting to travel to places like Alaska in large numbers, Native groups had developed a repertoire of objects they knew would be appealing to the visitors. While fur traders and whalers were interested in unprocessed natural products such as furs, whale oil, and ivory, there was also a steady demand for objects created by the people they encountered, to serve as mementos of their travels, examples of different lifestyles, and even as specimens for museums. Treasures and Trinkets includes examples of all of these, from a large-scale model kayak that is six feet long, to tiny ivory carvings, dolls, beadwork, and miniature sledges and boats.
The exhibit also shows how historic circumstances in different parts of the Arctic led to distinctive contemporary craft traditions in Alaska, the Canadian Arctic, and Greenland. Women in Greenland have developed a craft called avigtat embroidery, for example, that is unique to the area. They decorate bags, boots, and other objects with tiny squares of brightly colored leather in geometric patterns. In the Canadian Arctic, sculptors and graphic artists have made Inuit art known around the world, while in Alaska, ivory carvers, basket weavers, and mask makers create a range of objects that combine traditional and contemporary ideas. All of these arts and crafts have their roots in traditional material culture, often stretching back thousands of years, but they are firmly part of the contemporary world of the Inuit.
Pictured above: Walrus Dancer, Isaac Kayuk, King Island, Alaska, 1987. Ivory. Museum purchase. Photo by Dean Abramson.