N.W.T. museum digitizes 4,500 fine art pieces in new online collection

·3 min read
Ryan Silke is the curatorial assistant at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. The museum is starting to host its fine art collection and is chipping away at a 75,000-piece collection in the hopes of making many items more accessible online. (Alyssa Mosher/CBC - image credit)
Ryan Silke is the curatorial assistant at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. The museum is starting to host its fine art collection and is chipping away at a 75,000-piece collection in the hopes of making many items more accessible online. (Alyssa Mosher/CBC - image credit)

The Northwest Territories' Prince of Wales Heritage Centre is making 4,500 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 material that people might not otherwise be able to see it.

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.

Estate of Germaine Arnaktauyok/PWNHC catalogue number 994.007.001
Estate of Germaine Arnaktauyok/PWNHC catalogue number 994.007.001

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, Métis 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.

Estate of Don Cardinal/PWNHC catalogue number 978.055.006
Estate of Don Cardinal/PWNHC catalogue number 978.055.006

The collection includes world famous sculptures by Harold Pfeiffer who commissioned 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 Humphries, David 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.

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.

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