North

N.W.T. museum digitizes hundreds of fine art pieces in new online collection

The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre just launched its online fine art collection, making thousands of paintings, sculptures and tapestries accessible. The museum, not formally an art museum, plans to digitize future collections.

Curator Ryan Silke says this is the first part of a larger effort to make museum holdings more accessible

Untitled by Isa Smiler painted in Inukjuaq, Quebec between 1950 and 1954. (Isa Smiler/PWNHC catalogue number 993.004.168)

The Northwest Territories' Prince of Wales Heritage Centre is making hundreds of its fine art items searchable online, something museum curatorial assistant Ryan Silke says will bring one of the biggest collections of northern sculptures, paintings, prints and textiles to users without leaving their home.

"We have a lot of artists that are well known, very prolific across the territories and many of them are still producing today so we're really happy to showcase those works," Silke told CBC Radio Trail's End Host Lawrence Nayally.

The centre is launching an online collection where people can view the centre's vast art selection, giving greater access to a trove of material that people might not otherwise be able to see.

This matches the direction of many large museums beginning to host their collections in digital portals.

"This is one way to bring collections directly to the user," said Silke, adding that museums lack exhibit space and there can be challenges to getting people to come see them in person.

"Drummer" drawn by John Farcy in Fort Providence in 1983. (John Farcy, PWNHC catalogue number 983.027.021)
A 1977 untitled wall hanging of 11 figures made of wool duffle, stroud, sinew & caribou hide by Elizabeth Hummituq in Gjoa Haven. (Elizabeth Hummituq/PWNHC catalogue number 977.015.001)

Silke said that during the pandemic, heritage centre staff worked with software engineers to build a web portal based on one part of the museum that classifies fine art — that includes paintings, drawings, sculptures and tapestries.

It has items from the likes of Carver Dolphus Cadieux, Inuinnait graphic artist Helen Kalvak, Mé​tis artist Don Cardinal, painter James Wedzin and Inuk printmaker, painter and drawer Germaine Arnaktauyok. 

There are also contemporary and lesser known artists like Didy Woolgar, a watercolour artist from the 1960s, Gwich'in painter William Bonnetplume, who created oil paintings, pen and ink drawings, cartoons and even wood sculptures and Wally Wolf who made many aviation-themed paintings.

A 1970s portrait of Charles Gruben of Tuktoyaktuk titled "The Boxer" by Mona Thrasher. This piece was made in Inuvik. (Mona Thrasher/PWNHC catalogue number 2004.005.085)

The collection includes world famous sculptures by Harold Pfeiffer, who was commissioned to create bronze bust statues in the 1970s of prominent Northern people like Stuart Hodgson, Annie McPherson, midwife Harriet Gladue, and bush pilot Clennell Haggerston "Punch" Dickins.

The bronze statues "really immortalize" the individuals, said Silke, and hold significance for their descendants who may wish to view these items. 

First step in digitization

Browsing the gallery brings you to stargaze beading by Margaret Nazon, sketches by AY Jackson, painted portraits by Mona Thrasher, pen and ink works by Walt HumphriesDavid Ruben Piqtoukun and Fort Providence's John Farcy, and multimedia seal skin wall hangings.

The works are from the N.W.T., but include artworks made in the eastern Arctic

A 1994 painting by Inuit artist Germaine Arnaktauyok called Sedna — The Storm. The painting is one of 1,400 artworks included in the museum's new online portal. (Germaine Arnaktauyok/PWNHC catalogue number 994.007.001)

Because the museum has only 1,400 fine art pieces — out of a total of 75,000 items — the museum felt it would be an easy collection to start with.

"Art is not really a well used part of our collection because we're not by definition an art gallery."

"In the coming years we really will be working on making photographer and other collections related to science and cultural history [available] as well," said Silke.

The works shown were collected over the 40 years of the museum's existence and include creations from more than 200 artists.

Each item is searchable by artist, culture, region or date, and will be featured with information about the artwork as well as high-definition photos. 

Silke encouraged anyone who is interested in particular items to be made available on the search to let the museum know.

Written by Avery Zingel based on interviews by Lawrence Nayally

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