Things From the Past - Objects, Events, Stories
Eskimo Museum in Churchill, a museum designed to display the Inuit way of life through their art and artifacts was founded by Missionary Oblates working among the Inuit in the Central Arctic. It is administered by the Diocese of Churchill Hudson Bay.
The permanent collection which is on display year round, contains archeological pieces made from stone, bone and ivory, contemporary Inuit art and ethnographic artifacts, historic non-Inuit Northern artifacts, paintings, photographs, photographic reproductions, and various wildlife specimens.
Since 1948 Brother Jacques Volant OMI (1900-1987), a native of Britanny (France) with 20 years experience in Canadian North, has curated this collection. In recognition of his distinguished public service the University of Manitoba conferred upon Brother Volant an Honorary Degree of Laws during their 1979 Spring Convocation. In 1981 he was honoured by the Canadian Museums Association with the C.M.A.'s Award of Merit.
In 1944 the missionaries started a museum in a small room at the Bishop’s residence at Churchill. The museum would dedicate itself to advancing understanding and appreciation of Inuit culture, mainly through its displays of sculptures carved by the Inuit themselves. Until today the museum’s collection has grown to contain over 800 contemporary sculptures, and some 3,000 artifacts of prehistoric and historic age. Museum has participated in many international expositions and has received, from different Canadian museums and art galleries, several requests for loans of the pieces from the collection.
The museum has started under direction of Fr. Jean Philippe OMI. Then, since 1948, this responsibility was given to Br. Jacques Volant OMI, who dedicated the rest of his working life to the service of the museum. The present curator is Lorraine E. Brandson.
The Eskimo Museum in Churchill now called the Itsanitaq Museum had its beginnings in a small room in the Bishop's residence. What began as a small exhibit of walrus tusk carvings turned into a museum (1944) when Bishop Marc Lacroix, OMI in collaboration with Fathers Richard Ferron and Jean Philippe determined that a small museum devoted to the “Eskimo” would be a meaningful endeavour. As the focus of heritage preservation in the world of churches normally relates to ecclesiastical objects and buildings, the decision of a Bishop to promote and preserve the heritage of the people his Vicariate served was quite exceptional.
The Oblate missionaries were in a unique position to discover and encourage the production of these carvings representations of life in the North. They saw in these pieces the creativity of the Inuit and their technical ability to transfer the skills of making their tools and implements into an artistic form expressing their culture and worldview.
But as we know, without champions, these kinds of projects do not develop and continue! In 1948 an Oblate Brother Jacques Volant who had been in the North since 1925 was placed in charge of the museum. Described by one art historian as the Guardian of Dreams, Brother Volant (Piku) spent the rest of his life devoted to its cause. Franz Van de Velde, amongst other missionaries acquired pieces and sent them to Churchill to be curated by Brother Volant. Successive Bishops Omer Robidoux and Reynald Rouleau became keen supporters. For his dedicated efforts on this project, Brother Volant received an Honorary Degree from the University of Manitoba in 1979 as well as the Canadian Museums Association Award of Merit.
The Oblates were at the forefront of collaborating with the people of the North to develop Co-operatives in the Northwest Territories (eastern part of today's Nunavut) and Northern Quebec (Nunavik). Arts and crafts became an important part of what Northerners could export to the outside world, especially the beautiful soapstone pieces (sannanguagaq) that appeared in the early 1950s. The priests had a deep appreciation for art and how it could be an economic support to the people. They enjoyed receiving the artists in their mission who explained to them through their carvings an account of the Mother of the Sea Mammals or how to successfully hunt a seal in its breathing hole (aglu).
Churchill has always been an ideal location for the museum, being an important international tourist destination to view polar bears, belugas and northern lights. Inuit from the Kivalliq region, especially those chartered to Churchill to utilize the local health services have been happy to find carvings made by their extended family and community members.
The museum in its current building (1961) houses around 1200 sculptures, as well as some archaeological material and natural history specimens. Today, operated as a separate non-profit corporation, it has a modest budget allowing for the acquisition of some new pieces each year in order to remain current. The current Curator is Lorraine Brandson who has worked for both the museum and the Diocese since 1973.
A book titled “Carved from the Land: the Eskimo Museum collection” produced for the museum's 50th anniversary highlights the artwork and cultural history of the North. One is struck by the various images, Antonin Attark's sighting of the first plane in Kugaaruk, John Kaunak's depiction of the Northern Lights dancing in the sky, Fabienne Oogaq's encounter with a polar bear, and of course, Yvonne Kanajuq's iconic mother with her child nestled in a pouch in the hood of the women's parka (amauti).
A 2017 special Travel issue of the Canadian Geographic Society magazine lists the Itsanitaq museum as one of “10 awesome Canadian museums to visit this summer”. You are all welcome to visit year round! To read more about Inuit art and culture we suggest you consider subscribing to Etudes Inuit Studies [etudes-inuit-studies.ulaval.ca] and the Inuit Art Quarterly [inuitartfoundation.org].