It started out as an ordinary day at the Manitoba Museum. Five teachers were making a stop at the Museum as part of a professional development week. But these were not typical urban educators; they were from Arviat, Nunavut. And the tour they received was anything but ordinary, thanks to some excellent museum staff.
The Ancient Seas exhibit delighted the small group. The Arctic/Sub Arctic Gallery was also a favourite. But it was the many examples of beadwork, some of them from the far North of our country, which really entranced them, especially two teachers named Linda and Mary Kaviok.
An ordinary tour of the Museum was then transformed in to an extraordinary day for Linda and Mary Kaviok, and also for the staff. While conducting the tour, program developer Anya Moodie-Foster spotted curator of ethnology Dr. Maureen Matthews. Moodie-Foster introduced Matthews to the group.
“At first I thought that she would just talk to them, but she took them up to the collections area,” says Moodie-Foster. “The stars aligned that Maureen happened to have a free moment.”
The collections area from the Inuit features clothing, tools and weapons. You can search some of the Museum’s collections here.
“Linda and Mary loved looking at the beadwork on the Inuit women’s parkas from the HBC and Marsh collections,” says Matthews. “These parkas are called amautik because they feature an amaut, a pouch on the back which holds a baby.”
The most beautifully beaded amautiks are for very young babies, Matthews adds.
“The pouch is quite small and upright and the hood is very large to allow for swinging the baby around to the front of the parka to nurse. The beading is elaborate and covers most of the front of the parka and all of the edge of the hood which hangs down the back.”
Moodie-Foster says the women reacted very vocally to the experience.
“Linda just made these wonderful noises of delight as Maureen [Matthews] opened the drawers. It was fantastic,” says Moodie-Foster. “She was so excited to see these things and, as someone proficient in beading and sewing herself, she had this immense appreciation for the craftsmanship behind them.”
“Very quickly, they started sharing their knowledge: ‘This is such-and-such style. This is for a newborn.’ They thought they knew the creator of one of the pieces,” Moodie-Foster adds.
Some of the garments were damaged and would not necessarily go on display.
“It was a unique circumstance and it made me see the value of these kinds of things,” she says.
Matthews also showed them some examples of clothing made from caribou.
“Technically, it’s a marvel,” she says. “Caribou keeps you warm without overheating you. The quality of the stitching is so fine that it will save your life. Stitches are very fine, very close together. The seam is perfectly sealed and is sewn with sinew.”
Matthews’ job as a curator is very hectic, but she loves to chat with visitors when she has a chance.
“I love to do this sort of thing,” she says. “Aboriginal craftsmen can learn so much from this. Culture is sustained by practice.”
The community of Arviat is very well represented at the Manitoba Museum. One of the Museum’s founding collections came from Donald Marsh, who lived and worked in Arviat and eventually became the Bishop of the Arctic.
In addition to visual art, many talented musicians come from the town of less than 2,000, including Susan Aglukark.
Before the teacher’s group left the Museum, Linda Kaviok pulled an example of her own beadwork from her purse. As she was leaving, Linda handed Moodie-Foster and Matthews a felt appliqué wall hanging as a way of thanking the women for their time.
It was, by any account, no ordinary day at the Museum.