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Expedition: Arctic, the Canadian Museum of Civilization’s new exhibit

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On Tuesday afternoon, I had the privilege of being part of the very first public group to visit the Canadian Museum of Civilization’s new exhibit “Expedition: Arctic” scheduled to open on Thursday April 21, 2011. For two hours, along with close to 40 other members of The Arctic Circle (the Circle’s very first “field trip” in 64 years of existence!), I was taken back 100 years to relive the Canadian Arctic Expedition (CAE) that took place from 1913 to 1918. The CAE was the very first Canadian scientific expedition to be conducted in the Arctic.

After welcoming us, Mrs Moira McCaffrey, vice-president of Research and Collections at the Canadian Museum of Civilization (CMC) put us in the hands of Dr David R. Gray, Arctic biologist & historian at the Museum of Nature and guest-curator for the exhibit, and Dr David Morrison, Director, Archaeology & History at the CMC. We definitely could not have asked for better guides!

As Dr Gray explained, the idea of presenting such an exhibit goes back a long way. It is shortly after moving to Ottawa in 1973 that he first crossed paths with Dr Rudolf Martin Anderson, Arctic zoologist and the leader of the CAE’s Southern Party whose mandate was to conduct of scientific research. Dr Anderson had died 12 years earlier but Dr Gray kept coming across tons of objects bearing his name on their identification tag: cultural artefacts, documents, films, photographs as well as a wide variety of animal and flora specimens, etc. Every single one was more fascinating than the next. Something had to be done to share this wealth of information with the public!

In 2002-2003, Dr Gray and his team developed the virtual exhibit Northern People, Northern Knowledge : The story of the Canadian Arctic Expedition (1913-1918). A year later, Dr Gray planted the seed to have the actual artefacts shown to the public in a “real-life” exhibit. Seven years later, his wish has become a reality! So, it is now up to us to stop by the CMC and take advantage of this wonderful opportunity to discover the history, the successes, the tragedies and the legacy of this fascinating polar adventure.

The exhibit being interactive, a collection of 16 cards, each one representing an actual member of the CAE expedition, will allow you to visit the exhibit with a different pair of eyes as you try to discover that expedition member’s story. So, as you enter the exhibit, don’t hesitate to grab a card from the wall dispenser.

One of the bonuses of visiting the exhibit in the company of Dr Gray and Dr Morrison was that we got to hear some “behind the scene” stories. As Dr Gray explained, his greatest challenge was to deal with the huge amount of information and artefacts available for display. Making the decision to let go of some items and/or the wonderful stories that came with them was sometimes very hard.

One of the stories we had the pleasure to hear was that of the two sleds on display. In 1917, the CAE had to abandon both of them on Banks Island. The first one you will encounter during the visit was collected in 1954 by the HMCS Labrador and brought back to Ottawa to the National Archives (at the time, the Archives was collecting and preserving 3D artefacts). The second sled was left in the tundra for an extra 17 years. It was picked up in 1971 when an oil company executive visited the area in the company of Bryan Gordon of the CMC. Unfortunately, all information associated to that sled was lost. It had simply been numbered HNN13 (History No Name #13).

Here is a short video where Dr Gray talks about the first sled, how it was used and why it was abandoned:

During our visit, we learned that the selection of the artefacts to be displayed was often made based on photographs and not based on seeing the actual physical object. So, a few surprises came up at exhibit set up time. For example, when the box for HNN13 was opened, at the bottom laid parts of the first sled as well as “souvenirs” that had been picked up in 1954.

Reuniting objects that ended up being separated with time was also a difficult task. Sometimes, the stickers or the glue left on the object when the stickers fell, was their main evidence confirming they had been collected from the same place.

Still today, there are over 300 cultural artefacts that have no history. By any chance, you wouldn’t happen to know a student who would like to make them the subject of thesis?

With the exception of one or two items, namely the phonograph, all of the artefacts and specimens shown in the exhibit belonged to or were brought back by the CAE. In some cases, today’s technology was combined with yesteryear items. For example, as you walk in you, take a close look at the image of a boat projected on the screen. It is a still photograph to which motion has been added to the water and the sky. You will even spot a bird fly by! Neat!

Here is another short video where Dr Gray talks about the expedition’s scientific research and how specimens were collected. Some you will recognize when you visit the exhibit, namely Jim the Arctic fox. Find out how he became a specimen:

P.S. We heard that the Arctic wolf on display bit a member of the expedition. Will have to find out more about that story 😉

One of the focus of the exhibition is the culture of the Copper Inuit and how they have helped members of the expedition. As you visit the exhibit, pay attention to the sounds and music that are playing. The CAE members recorded everything you will hear. Some are Inuit songs that were actually written on the expedition. Here is a short video where Dr Gray talks about how music was recorded during the expedition :

Here is another video where Dr Gray talks about the Copper Inuit culture. At one point he shows an example of Inuit sunglasses. In the exhibit, you will be able to see various models of “southern” sunglasses that were tested during the expedition but none proved to be as efficient as the Inuit’s:

Finally, here is a short video in which Stuart E. Jenness, son of Diamond Jenness, one of the two ethnologists on the CAE, introduces his book Stefansson, Dr. Anderson and the Canadian Arctic Expedition, 1913-1918: A Story of Exploration, Science and Sovereigntywhich is the first attempt to tell the whole story of the CAE.

I hope that these few lines and images are enticing you into visiting this new exhibit. Even though we have until April 2012 to do so, why not go now?

France Rivet

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