Arctic Objects in the World Art Collection

Jonathan King from the British Museum visited Brighton Museum & Art Gallery recently to help us learn more about the Arctic peoples’ objects in the World Art collection.

Jonathan King examining objects from the Arctic
Jonathan King examining objects from the Arctic

These objects came from different sources and donors and were originally collected by European traders and sailors in the nineteenth – and early twentieth century; for example, Frederic William Lucas acquired many carved ivories, probably at auction.

Arctic peoples have lived in the regions of Northern Canada, Greenland and Alaska for 1,000s of years. Originally the people came from Siberia across the Bering land bridge, which once joined eastern Siberia with Alaska.

Traditionally the Arctic peoples were nomadic hunters and we have many weapons and tools, used for hunting whales, seals and caribou, in our collection along side sewing implements, domestic items, decorative pieces and animal carvings made from walrus and seal bones.

Jonathan supplied invaluable information about the objects, explaining and demonstrating how hunting tools were made and used.

Pipe detail
Pipe detail

He also provided insight into the engravings that decorate objects such as this Siberian-type pipe from Alaska (above) on which a hunting scene is depicted. The feathers in the walrus’s and whale’s mouths are a motif used by Arctic artists to represent a mammal surfacing for air from the water.

The objects decorated with hunting scenes served as diaries of the hunters’ exploits. Other carved objects like this small figure on a sledge were used for trade or sold as souvenirs.

Man on sledge
Man on sledge

The Arctic peoples made many animal carvings, which demonstrates a keen knowledge of animals and respect for their environment. Some carvings were made as toys for children.

Polar bear carving
Polar bear carving

They might also have been worn as amulets for protection on hunting trips. Many were also made for sale to European traders and sailors. The polar bear carving to the left is an example.

These cheek studs, from our collection, would be worn by Arctic hunters to mimic walrus tusks. The hunter would believe themselves to be imbued with a walrus spirit.

Cheek studs
Cheek studs

Some of these Arctic objects will be displayed in the new World Stories gallery opening next year.

Lucy Faithful, Assistant Curator of World Art

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