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Monday 21 June

Maritime Media Volunteer, Ben Lanham visited the museum as objects were being recorded and packed away for storage. Ben took a closer look at the Inuit collection and here's what he discovered.

Recently I had the opportunity to pay a visit to the Maritime Museum in the midst of its ongoing improvements, to see how the ambitious project is progressing and get an up-close look at some of the artefacts from the museum’s extensive collection.

Currently in the process of being catalogued, conserved or, where necessary, restored, to then be placed into secure storage for the duration of the museum’s renovation, a whole host of pieces of maritime history from the polar bear skeleton to the extensive scrimshaw collection to a wide array of Inuit tools and ornaments were laid out outside their usual glass cases, allowing for a much closer look.

It is the latter of these I will be discussing in this blog, exploring the items of both cultural and functional significance that travelled all the way from the native communities of the Arctic to find themselves here in Hull.

Inuit model kayaks, figures, and animals

The Inuit collection was particularly interesting to examine up close, revealing details one would not normally see at a glance and that illustrated how Inuit communities acquired and used resources in an area where many materials were scarce to non-existent.

Model kayaks of the sort seen in the picture above were constructed using the same materials and techniques as full-size examples, chiefly using sealskin stretched over a frame of wood – no trees grow so far north, so Inuit had to rely on driftwood or acquiring wood through trade – and sewn together with sinew.

Making these scale models likely served as a teaching aid to younger Inuit kayak builders learning their craft while still conserving precious wood. Each model comes with a small person inside too, seated in the kayak with their jacket stretched over the rim to create a watertight seal as is done when using full-size boats.

Inuit kayaks were far from uniform in their design, too – most Inuit communities had their own unique designs, specialised for the environment they found themselves in, be it open sea or channels through ice. After all, if one relies on the sea and its fruits for both sustenance and materials, one had better have a good boat!

Materials beyond what could be obtained by hunting seals and whales were often bartered for with European sailors who journeyed to the Arctic to hunt whales themselves; metal tools such as knives, harpoons, and arrow heads were particularly highly prized and put to good use whenever they could be acquired.

Materials were recycled whenever possible too – pieces of ivory used in some artefacts still have nineteenth-century western text and markings on them, the product of a barter exchange and subsequent repurposing.

Europeans would often bring home models and toys crafted by the Inuit, often representing kayaks, dog-sleds, or animals native to the Arctic, as souvenirs to remember their voyages or to be given as gifts on arriving home.

Piece of ivory from a detachable harpoon head - note the Western text

Contact and interaction between the Inuit and Europeans was heavily focused on the whaling industry – whalers had sailed to Inuit coastlines as early as the sixteenth century, but the peak of whaling activity came in the nineteenth, when the British especially created whaling stations around the Canadian coast, particularly in Hudson Bay.

As it became necessary to hunt whales further into bays and inlets and out of the open sea, it became common for ships to find themselves caught in ice and forced to spend the winter in the frozen North. Trade with the Inuit, then, was often necessary for survival, and food and furs were among the goods regularly traded for tools. Inuit were often hired to work at whaling stations, both to hunt and to process the catch, and payment was often made in goods such as tobacco and tea.

Metal knife acquired by the Inuit, likely through barter

It is, of course, important to consider the historical context of interactions between the whaling industry, in which Hull played a major part, and the Inuit; likewise it is important to take into account the cultural significance of artefacts to the people and communities who made and used them. When the museum’s improvements are complete and it is ready to put its collection on display once again, the plan is to work with and consult Inuit organisations in Canada to ensure artefacts are presented both accurately and respectfully.

Inuit model of a dog-sled, their primary form of land transport