Campus News

Treasures and Trinkets on Display at the Arctic Museum

Story posted October 21, 2003

In 1576, Martin Frobisher carried rocks from the Canadian Arctic to England as proof of his visit and of England's claim to the northern lands he had visited. Tests indicated that the rocks were valuable gold ores, leading to two more expeditions -- before further tests revealed that the rocks were not ores at all, and were worthless.

Since that time, travelers to the North have continued to seek treasures, usually with more success. Some, such as fur traders and whalers, shipped vast quantities of valuable northern goods to be sold to the wealthy people of Europe and America. Individual travelers, from explorers to tourists, traded extensively with the people of the Arctic, acquiring a range of hand crafted objects that today can tell us much about both the people who made them and the people who traded for them.

These northern treasures are the focus of a new exhibit, "Treasures and Trinkets: Collecting Culture in the North," opening at The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum October 29.

The exhibit 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 such as Frobisher," explained curator Genevieve LeMoine, "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," said LeMoine.

Visitors will see examples of all of these things in the new exhibit, including many objects from the museum's permanent collection that have never before been on display.

"Treasures and Trinkets: Collecting Culture in the North" will be on view at The Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum, located in Hubbard Hall on the Bowdoin College campus, from October 29, 2003 through August 4, 2005.

Molly Lee will give a lecture on Yup'ik Eskimo Basketry to kick off the exhibit's opening. Click here for details on the lecture.

Museum hours are Tuesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday 2 to 5 p.m. The Museum is closed Mondays and national holidays. Admission is free.

For more information call 207-725-3416 or visit the Web page at

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