Touching Distance:

Spatial Conceptualisations in Circum-Polar Object Works

Meg Boulton

Independent Scholar

This discussion of Artic artworks and objects brings together three disparate (sets of) made objects from across the circum-Polar region to consider the possible spatial connections and considerations made by those peopling this landscape in a post-contact environment. By placing some of the sculpted Inuit works from the collection of the Hull Maritime Museum, carved in the Coronation Inlet, Hudson Bay in Canada,[1] alongside a Chukchi Sealskin Painting/Map of the Bering Strait (housed in the Pitt Rivers Museum),[2] and some tactile wooden coastal maps of the Ammassalik Inuit from Greenland,[3] this discussion seeks to acknowledge the significance and complexity of these objects, and the contexts of their making.

Using these three material examples, this discussion considers how the depiction of space on surface or object might remain, shape or shift when it recognises multiple conceptions of cartography, topography and relationships to arctic landscapes in a post-contact environment. Further, it suggests that parallel examples of object-based spatial exchange seem to be present in objects created in and for contact environments that are both endemic to, and derived from, a more indigenous relationship to space, place and landscape; acknowledging, creating, and layering different experiences of inhabiting the Arctic though the material presences of these unique objects.

Beginning, then, in the Hull Maritime Museum, whose extraordinary collections allow visitors to glimpse maritime history across a vast period of time, reflecting various aspects and moments of the city’s complex relationship with the sea. Although all the Inuit works held in the museum are significant and complex, for me, those that most intriguing are the forms of the tiny, complete Igloo along with its miniature inhabitants; the carved form of a bear, with his alert ears and his poised, stepping paws; and the water bird, captured as it floats/swims on a missing Arctic Sea – which is conjured and (re)created in the minds of viewer as they look at this sculpted form.

Figure 1

Fig. 1: Artists unknown, Polar Bear (date unknown), walrus ivory, Hull Maritime Museum: KINCM:2007.1399

Figure 2

Fig. 2: Artists unknown, Polar Bear (date unknown), walrus ivory, Hull Maritime Museum: KINCM:2007.1399

Figure 3

Fig. 3: Artists unknown, Inuit carved figure, possibly of a sea spirit, Hull Maritime Museum: KINCM:2007.1400.1 07

Figure 4

Fig. 4: Artists unknown, Igloo, with Inuit Eskimo Family of Eight Figures (date unknown), whale bone, Hull Maritime Museum: KINCM:2007.1397

Figure 5

Fig. 5: Artists unknown, Igloo, with Inuit Eskimo Family of Eight Figures (date unknown), whale bone, Hull Maritime Museum: KINCM:2007.1397

Figure 6

Fig. 6: Artists unknown, Painting on sealskin, 117 x 111.5 cm., frame 142 x 134.5 cm, Pitt Rivers Museum: 1966.19.1

Figure 7

Fig. 7: Ammassalik Inuit artists unknown, wooden coastal maps of Greenland (dates unknown), Greenland Museum:1418 La. 19 and 1418 La. 20

To look at Inuit carving is a complex endeavor, especially items made in the post-contact period when many such works were deliberately created for a European audience; a fact acknowledged since the early days of ethnographic and anthropological scholarship that first examined these sculpted forms,[4] as well as in more contemporary discussion.[5] The experience is made more complex still, as, although there was a trade market for such carvings, they nonetheless contain referents to traditional motifs rooted in a way of life and a place far removed from post-enlightenment European experiences.

Dorothy Jean Ray acknowledges this uniqueness in her large-scale study of Eskimo Art (although referring to the visual and material culture of the peoples of Alaska, rather than the Canadian Inuit responsible for the sculpture in the Hull collection). Ray writes that the Inuit “lived within, around, beneath and on the animals they caught, which provided their warmth, protection, sustenance, and materials for art”. These included seals, walruses, caribou, and whales, which “came and went with the seasons or with the weather”.[6] This symbiotic interrelationship between Inuk and nature, human and animal, hunter and prey - bound by temporal rhythms and chance seasons of feast and famine - was fundamental to Inuit culture.[7] If they are to be understood, such artistic forms cannot be fully divorced from their context, despite the manifold dislocation of our encounter with them today, seen, as they are, in disparate museums and collections. Early anthropological studies ranging from the initial observations of E.W. Nelson, through the work of Danish Eskimologist Kaj Birkut-Smith, to the immersive anthropological study carried out by Hans Himmelheber, as well as the extensive art-historical studies produced by Ray all agree that place is intrinsic to Inuit culture; that the Arctic, with its privations and isolation “resulted in an almost extravagant perfection of Eskimo culture”.[8] Moreover, this connection is powerfully seen in the work itself. Indeed, the wider association between place and identity is one that is widely observed across times and cultures – place forms us, shapes us. We adapt to it, as much as it we shape it. The extent of human engagement with place is undeniable, indeed perhaps increasingly so, but its traces on us, on our identities, is equally important.[9]

In the case of the Inuit artefacts in the Hull collection, place is the Canadian Arctic; a place of increasingly sparse resources and extreme conditions. Inhabiting the periphery of this harsh world meant Inuit developed skills that enabled them to become great marine mammal hunters of open water and winter ice, both adaptive and resourceful in their relationship to the landscape and its animal inhabitants (Fig. 1 and Fig. 2). Nineteenth-century Inuit were largely nomadic hunters, following seasonal game across their territory; hunting with harpoons, fish spears, and beautifully-crafted stone and bone tools, many of which were well suited for carving in addition to their other purposes. Indeed, the skills belonging to this hunting culture - those of patience, close observation of animals and their habits and habitats, and of prolonged and patient exposure to the natural world - were the same skills that allowed Inuit to make such expressive and powerful carvings, that record and describe their world.[10]

Place, then, may be understood to be crucial to the creation of these works, which powerfully respond to the essence of the thing they represent, imbued with the identity and spirit of the thing that is carved, despite their relatively small scale. In this tradition of making, no two carvings are alike, each subject is unique to the carver and to his experience of the world.[11] Although repeated ‘types’ are found throughout Inuit art, these are not straightforward copies but are specific to the artisan and the moment of making: “one […] finds beauty in the light sleek lines of the weasel. Another sees the massive bulk of the walrus. Another tries to capture in stone the sullen treachery of a bear. They watch an infinity of detail, then, perhaps, discard all but the essence of the form”.[12] Such a complex relationship is perhaps seen most potently in the form of the water bird from the Hull collection (Fig. 3), characteristically cut off at the imagined line where its body would emerge from the water, as is typical for aquatic animals in this artistic tradition. As a result, the small figure of the water bird carries around it the negative space and expanse of its aquatic environment through its spatial presence, the carved form of the bird is fragmented by an imagined waterline and, for the viewer, the form inhabits an environment conjured by the non-place around the sculpture, performing as do the aquatic animals actually glimpsed in their Arctic context, variously covered, sliced, veiled and supported by water and ice.

Similar to this spatial representation of water that is at once there and not there, embodied, inhabited, and actualised by the perpetually swimming/floating/drifting form of the bird, is the igloo in the Hull collection (Fig. 4 and Fig. 5). This presents both the inside and outside of both a place and a space, allowing viewers to imagine entering the structure and view it from within and without, at once giving an overview of Inuit environment, and an intimate insight into it. However, the tiny house is more than a micro-representation of Inuit architecture. It is hinged, and so is capable of revealing the inside of this Artic dwelling, and the seven figures that inhabit it.[13] These figures are conceptually mobile, carved separately from the igloo, capable of cognitively and imaginatively inhabiting the space within and around the structure, with many cosily fitting on the wide sleeping platform that fills almost half of the interior space, whose surface is carved in a way that evokes the materiality of the fur coverings found there in life. These are figures inhabiting a world, demarcated by the structure of the igloo, and moreover, by the negative space outside that is reminiscent of the vast expanse of Arctic ice and space that once formed the backdrop of the original ice-house – a tiny diorama of a living original.

Place, space, and non-place;[14] ice and water; realistic image, recorded event, and imagined as well as vanishing worlds; art, identity, object, animal, history, memory – the Inuit group in the Hull Maritime Museum is, in some ways, a memorial to its own making, as well as a potent reminder of the unavoidable centrality, harsh and strange beauty of the various types of predation and hunting so integral to life in this landscape.

In a circum-Polar context, a disparate (and yet hauntingly similar) artefact which illustrates space, place and life on the other side of the arctic from these Canadian Inuit objects is held in the collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford in the form of the Chukchi Sealskin Painting or Map of the Bering Strait (an object that is sadly too complex to address fully here) (Fig. 6). This 19th-century map, painted on sealskin, was acquired by the captain of a western Whaling ship, and may, like the wooden maps mentioned below, have been purposely created for western use in navigating this world, although the visual forms with which the map is constructed are arguably drawn from a primarily indigenous context, even if maps themselves come from a Western tradition.[15] This image presents an understanding of space and place which is deeply complex, as well as depicting minutely observed actualities of place, and universalizing examples of cosmological or ritual significance.

Cartography itself is an interesting art as it not only allows us (as geographically or temporally dislocated viewers) insight into the various ways place and space can be conceptualized – but also presents ideas of time, space and movement to those reading them. Doreen Massey has argued that early maps “told stories. While presenting a kind of picture of the world ‘at one moment’ (supposedly) they also told the story of [their] origins”. These are “representations of space and time. It is not the spatial which is fixing the temporal, but the map, (the representation) which is stabilising time-space”.[16] On the Chuckchi map, most of the images constructing and occupying the topography are particularly focused on the presentation of the images and instances that specifically and explicitly display indigenous culture as inhabiting and engaging the space presented and actualised by the image; while the Western whalers and ships are literally, physically presented on the spatial, marginal edges of the map in this representation of a post contact world - which visually and cognitively demonstrates two distinct ways of inhabiting, conceptualizing and using the landscape depicted on the skin, which at times overlap.

The figures and forms of the world and the societies depicted on the sealskin are not straightforwardly presented from one perspective, either spatially, conceptually or ethnographically and the scene seemingly isn't oriented in any one direction as we normally understand ‘maps’ to be when viewed from a western perspective. See, for example, the pregnant whale on one of the map’s inlets, seen from both inside and outside, as with the Hull igloo.

Although, likely created or adopted for Western usage navigating in the landscape it presents, this map is not a static object, but a fluid one, presenting more than one mapped narrative - a hybrid of western cartography and the more indigenous mapping techniques seen in other societies from the Circum-Polar region, such as the tactile driftwood coastal maps of Greenland (Fig. 7). One of these maps (currently housed in Denmark) was specifically made for a Western explorer, Gustav Holm, but demonstrates a decidedly non-western understanding of place. These tactile maps of Greenlandic coastlines were carved in the 1880s by a native of Umivik named Kunit. These maps are extraordinary, as they are not a traditional Inuit product, but an adaptation of intimate Inuk knowledge of place for the purpose of post-contact exploration of the Arctic.

These maps float if dropped, and can be used in daylight or the dark, embodying and presenting a cartographic topography that is read by touch. They present the contours of the coastline both coming and going, indicating through ridges where the water stopped and boats would have to be carried overland. While looking at the coastlines presented on the sealskin, I was reminded both of the topographical lines of these three Inuit wooden maps, and the intense and visceral sense of place and form produced by the Hull works. Coming from three sites across the circum-Polar world, all of these forms, three dimensional sculpture, and pan-dimensional maps petrify and preserve a sense of this world as it was inhabited and understood by the peoples and animals who lived there, capturing a sense of space, movement, time and presence, caught and painted on the lived skins, bones and branches of this world. All of these forms allow those outside to explore the Arctic, to recognize it and to study its patterns and forms, which continue to shift and move like the ice they so frequently present – crystallizing and melding and melting forms and landscapes which continue to provoke as much fascination today as they did two hundred years ago for the whalers who first encountered them among the ice.


  1. For an earlier iteration of some of these ideas, see my ‘Exploring Frozen Worlds: Inuit Art in the Hull Maritime Museum’ in Jason Edwards, ed., Turner and the Whale (Oxford: Bloomsbury, 2017), 122-144.

  2. I am extremely grateful for assistance from the cuatorial team at the Pitt Rivers Museum in allowing me to access this map and for their assistance in this research to date, particular thanks are owed to Jeremy Coote and Nicholas Crowe.

  3. A third map (specially commissioned by Gustaf Holm, see below) resides in the Nationalmuseet Copenhagen. I am grateful to Dr Hans Harmsen of the Greenland National Museum & Archives whose own research into these maps has been indispensable to my engagement and who was good enough to discuss his approach with me. For more, see Raina Delisle’s ‘He’s Got the Whole Coast in His Hand’, (December 9, 2016), Date of access: August 2017.

  4. For more, see Edward William Nelson, ‘The Eskimo about Bering Strait’ in The Eighteenth Annual Report of the Bureau of American Ethnology, 1896-97, Part 1 (Washington: Government Printing Office, 1900); Dorothy Jean Ray, Eskimo Art: Tradition and Innovation in North Alaska (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1977); Hans Himmelhaber, Eskimo Artists (Anchorage: University of Alaska Press, 1993); John F. Hoffecker, A Prehistory of the North: Human Settlement of the Higher Latitudes (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2005). See also William Fagg, Eskimo Art in the British Museum (London: British Museum, 1972); Norman Hurst, Arctic Ivory: Two Thousand Years of Alaskan Eskimo Art and Artifacts (Cambridge: Hurst Gallery, 1998), especially at 38; and Alma Houston, Inuit Art An Anthology (Winnipeg: Watson & Dwyer, 1988).

  5. Robert G. David, The Artic in the British Imagination, 1818-1914 (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000).

  6. Ray, Eskimo Art: Tradition and Innovation, 5.

  7. In case of linguistic confusion, it might be useful to note that Inuk is the singular noun, Inuit is the plural noun. The common translation of Inuit is ‘the people’.

  8. See n. 4, especially Fagg, Eskimo Art, 7. For further reading see Kaj Birket-Smith, The Eskimos (London: Methuen, 1959).

  9. For more, see Yi-Fu Tuan, Space and Place The Perspective of Experience (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1977), and Doreen Massey For Space (London: SAGE, 2005).

  10. See Houston, Canadian Eskimo Art, 7 and 16.

  11. Houston, Canadian Eskimo Art, 33.

  12. Houston, Canadian Eskimo Art, 31.

  13. For discussion of analogous use of space in visual material ,see Robert Bruce Inverarity, Art of the Northwest Coast Indians (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1950), 35-52 especially at 37-8.

  14. For ideas of non-place see Marc Augé Non-Places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity (London: Verso Books, 1995)

  15. For more, see Evelyn Edson, Mapping Time and Space: How Medieval Mapmakers Viewed Their World (London: The British Library, 1997); J.B. Harley and David Woodward, The History of Cartography vols 1 and 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987); and Jeremy Black, Visions of the World: A History of Maps (Great Britain: Mitchell Beazley, 2005) particularly at pp 8-11 which mentions the Chuckchi Map.

  16. Massey, For Space, 107.