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Get Up Close and Personal: Please DO Touch!

21 Aug

Over the past few weeks, Serena -the museum’s Summer YCW work intern, has been developing more interactive programming inside the museum. After brainstorming, researching, testing and training volunteers she was able to launch Get Up Close and Personal to share art works directly with museum visitors. Read about her experience creating the new program below.

Keeping museum pieces secure and safe from harm is a priority at any museum or art gallery. No museum is complete without a large sign or two saying “PLEASE DO NOT TOUCH”. However, if you’ve been to MIA in the last couple of months on a Thursday afternoon, you may have had the chance to participate in our new Get Up Close and Personal sessions.

These interactive sessions offer visitors the unique opportunity to touch objects from the MIA Educational Collection. Pieces in our Educational Collection are meant to be handled, so visitors can feel free to pick them up and learn more about the texture and material of each object.

I’ve been running these weekly Get Up Close and Personal sessions since July, and the results have been overwhelmingly positive so far. Visitors enjoy engaging in this tactile experience and trying to guess what material each piece is made of based on its texture.


Serena is all set to go for ‘Get Up Close and Personal’. You can join a session every Thursday from 1-2 PM in the museum.

It’s quite interesting to see how visual appreciation of the works in the museum translates to visitors’ tactile experiences – I often ask visitors to feel the porous texture of the antler doll in the collection and to guess what material it is made of. The most common answers are “bone” and “wood”, so most visitors are surprised to learn that the doll is made of antler, which caribou shed every year.

It has been especially rewarding to see how visitors make connections between what they have already seen in the museum and what they are holding in their hands. Once visitors find out that the carved ivory piece is a walrus tusk, many of them mention the narwhal tusk and the small ivory sculptures in the historical case at the museum.


Pieces from the museum’s Educational Collection that reflect the different types of materials and textures you can find in art produced by Inuit.

I’ve even encountered visitors who are familiar with Inuit art and have recognized different types of stone, pointing to Pudliak Shaa’s “Dancing Goose” and saying, “is that serpentine?”

These interactions with visitors are part of what makes working at MIA so fulfilling. I love contributing to visitor learning and watching visitors discover more about Inuit art. If you’d like to see (and touch) these objects for yourself, be sure to drop by the museum on Thursdays from 1-2 PM!

Posted by Serena Y., MIA’s Community Engagement Officer

Spotlight On: Caribou Antler

16 Jun

Walking though the Museum of Inuit Art, I notice that caribou antler can be found everywhere throughout the collection. But why d0n’t I know much about it? It’s a material that seems to keep a low profile. Caribou antler is a common material used in Inuit art that often escapes notice because of its artistic limitations – it’s not glossy, it’s not very strong, and it’s oddly shaped.  However, it is used in many different ways! A few artists carve and construct works solely from the material, but many use the antler for minute detailing, larger features, or use it in its natural form.

Caribou in the wild (c) Travis S., used under Creative Commons license.

The use of caribou antler in Inuit art varies due to regional styles and types of artistic materials available. Antler is widely available to Inuit artists, as caribou can be found north of the tree-line across the Canadian Arctic, and especially in the Kivalliq region of Nunavut. Both female and male caribou shed their antlers annually, so caribou are not hunted for their antler specifically.

Antler was traditionally used for utilitarian objects, such as buckles, snow goggles, and toys. Antler can be sawed or filed into shape, and can also be pegged or glued together to create more complex forms. In Arctic regions where the available stone is particularly hard and difficult to carve, antler can be used for detailing and emphasis.

Peter Assivaaryuk (1914-d), Qamanittuaq (Baker Lake), “Caribou Shaman” (1970s), caribou antler, Private Collection.

Caribou are particularly important for Inuit in the Kivalliq, who were traditionally nomadic hunters. The Kivalliq is also home to the Arctic’s only inland community, Qamani’tuaq (Baker Lake), so land mammals like caribou were much more important to survival in the surrounding area than sea mammals. Shamanim and hunting are common themes in art from this region, and often antler-based sculptures depict a tableau or scene, such as this intricate piece from Arviat displayed in the MIA collection:

Romeo Eekerkik (1923-1983), Arviat, “Journey to a Summer Camp” (1970s), Antler, Sprott/MIA Collection.

Because of the physical restrictions of antler as a material with a narrow circumference, artists often use pegs or glue to expand the form of their sculptures and create depth. Pegs can also function as joints, which provides the sculpture the possibility of movement, and mirrors a more traditional doll-like function.

Detail of pegs in Luke Iksiktaaryuk (1909-1977), Qamanittuaq (Baker Lake), “Standing Man” (mid-1970s), antler, metal, Private Collection.

Contemporary artist Mattiusi Iyaituk uses antler in a number of ways, sometimes as detailing or inlay, but most prominently he used the natural shape and curve of the antler with little alteration to its form. The points of the antler can represent fins, tails or hands. Mattiusi also uses antler as a base for many of his mixed-media sculptures, representing more spiritual and abstract forms.

Mattiusi Iyatuk (1950-), Akulivk, “My fantasy to one day see, to believe, Iaqluullamiluuq” (2008), stone, caribou antler, MIA Collection.

Next time you visit MIA, keep an eye out for all the ways artists use antler in their works. Find out more about materials in Inuit art, such as ivory and whalebone on the MIA blog!

– Posted by: Emma Ward, MIA’s Visitor Services Officer

“Getting” Art with Alysa

14 May

More musings from the MIA intern coming at ya!

When I first came into the museum studies program I thought that I would be surrounded by students who loved art as much I do. I had this vision of people gathered together at an exhibition opening, talking about such-and-such an artist and their brilliant project -which was sure to change the world.

In reality though…not so much.

Turns out I’ve got a bit of an art history bias and sort of forgot about the other types of museums out there. Like the natural history or science museums.


Not to give my fellow students a bad rap. Networking with archaeologists and scientists has some pretty cool benefits. And there are a lot of people out there who either haven’t given art the time of day, or walked away from it rather quickly because they “didn’t get it”. There are even times where I myself struggle to understand a theory or philosophy an artist is trying to address in their work.

But thank goodness for the internet! Google searches, podcasts, and videos have certainly answered a lot of questions I’ve had about what the heck some artists are doing. And joining that resource list is a member of our MIA team, Educational Coordinator Alysa Procida!


Recently she was asked by Lifestyle Goddess to talk about some of the pieces in the MIA collection. In the short segments, Alysa quickly covers portions of an artist’s biography in order to give the viewer context but without over burdening them with lots of detail or complicated terminology.

I’ll admit that before starting my internship here at MIA, I had never heard of Mattiusi Iyaituk before. But after watching Alysa’s video, and understanding his style and motivations I’ve been able to walk around the MIA’s collection pointing out his sculptures without referencing any labels. Success!!!

Alysa has also discussed the work of Bart Hanna  and Abraham Anghik Ruben in two other videos, which I hope you’ll enjoy as much as I have. And hopefully they’ll make you feel like you’ve finally arrived at the “art getters” club.

posted by: Brittany Holliss, MIA’s Educational Assistant

Focus On: Basket Making

18 Apr

Basket-making in the Arctic region is a traditional practice that has been around for centuries. Baskets are made from the dried grass that grows in the Arctic tundra, which is very durable and water-resistant.

An example of grass on the Arctic tundra.

The tradition of basket making was lost mid-1900s, but a few decades ago it was revived because of artists such as Annie Cookie, from Sanikiluaq, who used the memories and knowledge from older generations to recreate the process. Baskets made in the Arctic today are considered to be works of art, and often have bold geometric designs and decorative sculptures and handles on the lids.

"Basket with Walrus" by an unknown artist from Igloolik made with beach grass, leather and stone, 2007.

"Basket with Seal" made by Maggie Kattuk from Sanikiluaq, made with beach grass, stone and yarn, 2007.

The process of basket-making is long and arduous as it can take up to a month to weave a large basket. Baskets are made from repeatedly coiling the grass from the bottom of the basket and building the basket up. Designs are created by stitching thread onto the basket, however some designs are actually woven in. This thread can be made from a number of materials, such as de-haired sealskin, leather, and yarn.

Posted by Emma Ward, Visitor Services Officer

Let’s Talk About…Whalebone!

13 Apr

Many visitors coming into the Museum are often drawn in by our two large sculptures which are placed in the lobby. One of our frequently asked questions is what these are made of. Many guests guess that it is a type of wood because of the porous nature of the material.  The answer is that they are made of aged whalebone. Whalebone used in sculpture is old, not new. New whalebone is oily, smells, and will splinter if carved. Therefore, the older the bone, the better it is for carving.

Abraham Anghik Ruben's (1951-) "Memories: An Ancient Past" (2010), whalebone, stone, wood, Private Collection.

MIA's Development Officer, Karolina Tomaszewska with the reverse side of Abraham Anghik Ruben's (1951-) "Memories: An Ancient Past" (2010), whalebone, stone, wood, Private Collection
Note the spot for the spinal cord to fit into!

These bones come from the base of the whale’s skull and the round holes you can see are where the spinal cord fits into the skull. Many people assume that these are vertebrae, but vertebrae look quite different.

Whale skeleton-the highlighted portion is where the bone for the sculptures comes from!

A whale vertebra

Note how the shape of the vertebra is much different from the sculptures featured in our lobby!

Karolina with Manasie Akpaliapik's (1955-) "Spirit World of the Inuit", whalebone, stone, ivory, Private Collection.
Once again, note the space where the spinal cord fits in!

Can you find other pieces made from whalebone in the Museum? Drop by and let us know! We have quite a few!

Posted by: Karolina Tomaszewska, MIA’s Development Officer

Spotlight On: Ivory in Inuit Art

11 Apr

Artist Unidentified, Thule Period, Comb, MIA Collection

As far as materials we display in the museum go, few are as controversial as ivory. And it’s no wonder: the most well-known source of ivory is elephant tusks, whose trade severely effected their population. At MIA, we have many ivory pieces on display and often get questions about how it was obtained, where it was obtained and why it was used at all. These are all good questions and ones I want to address.

Ivory in the Arctic generally comes from one of two sources: walrus or narwhal tusks. The word “tusks,” though, is misleading: what we call tusks are actually overgrown incisor teeth. Normally a male narwhal’s upper left incisor tooth begins to protrude (female narwhal generally don’t have a tusk), while both upper incisor teeth on a walrus do the same. Very rarely, both of a narwhal’s upper incisor teeth will protrude, too. The narwhal’s tusk is also the subject of a traditional Inuit legend.

Inuit and their ancestors have hunted walrus and narwhal for centuries in order to survive. Both species are a food source for Inuit and were relied on for the raw materials to make objects like knives and clothing. The local need to hunt these animals continues to this day, an issue highlighted by the recent restrictions of legal export of  narwhal tusks from 17 Arctic communities in Nunavut. International trade in ivory is severely restricted by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Speciesof Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES).

The ivory pieces in the museum range from small Thule objects like the comb featured above to intricately carved tusks incorporated into stone sculptures, like those used by Bart Hanna (1948 – ) from Iglulik. Using these pieces of ivory is a way for Inuit artists to essentially recycle: once the animal has been used for its primary purpose, food, the leftover ivory is also utilized.

Posted by: Alysa Procida, MIA’s Educational Officer