University of Cambridge Museums

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A Siberian white elephant

When you mention indigenous peoples in the Arctic, people often think of the Inuit of Canada and Greenland, and their traditional semi-nomadic hunting lifestyle.  However, there are also many other Arctic peoples living in the far north of Russia, who traditionally survived through a combination of reindeer herding and hunting/gathering.  The Polar Museum has a small but choice collection of artefacts from the indigenous people of Siberia, and has recently lent a group of these to Manchester Museums, where they feature in the special exhibition “Siberia: at the edge of the world”.

By far the most striking of the objects we have lent to Manchester is an inkstand made from walrus ivory:

Inkstand blog-1

This enormous and intricate artefact is made from two walrus tusks, each around a foot and a half long, split in half and joined with ivory cross pieces to form a sort of sledge.  The runners of the sledge bear containers for ink and other items and are embellished with model people and animals.  The thing that looks like a ceremonial arch is probably a carrying handle. The figures are charming, and have extra details made from leather and sinew:

Inkstand blog-2

Personally I rather like the lugubrious walrus rising up from the sea to be shot by the kayakers:

Inkstand blog-3

The “cups” at one end seem to be made from the ends of tusks, which is why they have slightly flared and frilly edges.  These are also decorated with engraved pictures, inlaid with a small range of colours:

Inkstand blog-4

The cups are presumably for the ink though there is no sign they were ever used for that.

At the other end the yurt-like model dwellings have swivelling lids and can be used to store small objects (pen nibs, perhaps?):

Inkstand blog-5

The inkstand was made by Chukchi carvers in Siberia, and apparently dates from the 1920’s.  Traditionally the Chukchi were nomadic sea-mammal hunters and reindeer herders, and it is hard to see why they would make such a huge and elaborate inkstand for their own use.  Instead it must have been made for the “Western” (perhaps more accurately called “Southern”) market.  The Chukchi had always used sea-mammal bone and ivory to carve amulets and useful tools, but they expanded into carving souvenirs in the nineteenth century when the Chukchi Peninsula began to be visited by whalers and traders.

In the 1920s, the Soviets began to organise the economic activity of the Chukchi, and also to prohibit their religion.  The ivory carvers were increasingly influenced by the pressures of the market and its rather unsophisticated tastes, and also by various artistic instructors.  As a result some of their creative drive and distinctive artistic expression was lost.  The Institute of the Peoples of the North was established in Leningrad in 1930 to encourage creativity and strengthen both the ethnic identity and economic independence of Arctic peoples.  Artists were employed by the Institute to help the Chukchi with this, but quickly found that standard European approaches to making stifled Chukchi creativity.  There is a fascinating article about the interaction between the Soviet and Chukchi in developing native art online.

In the 1950s, Inuit carvers from Canada also had sponsorship and artistic support from a “Western” artist named James Houston, and Inuit art is now a fully fledged art form in various media.  It is very interesting to compare this story to the much more explicitly ideological and institutionalised Soviet version!

The inkstand has been in pieces for many years, as many of the original joints were made with copper alloy pins which have corroded and failed in many places.  These were all the parts which needed to be rejoined:

Inkstand blog-6

The ivory itself has shrunk and slightly twisted over time and small pieces of ivory from the original joins are also missing.  The inkstand needed to be repaired to go on display in Manchester, but this was quite a challenge, because the ivory tusks were very heavy and the points of contact for the repair so small.  We used a strong archival adhesive and packed some of the joins out with long fibred Japanese tissue soaked in adhesive, to make the contact area between sections as large as possible.  There is still a risk that the heavy sections of the inkstand will pull apart from each other, so the object needs a fitted support for the long term.  We have built one out of archival materials, which doubles as a lovely travelling mount for the loan.

Our inkstand came into the collection in 1956, and was a gift from the Arctic Institute in Leningrad.  The director of the Scott Polar Research Institute visited the USSR for 2 weeks in that year, and was regaled with dinners and visits to the ballet and the opera, although it was during the Cold War and the country was mainly closed to outside visitors.  Unfortunately we have no other information about the history of the inkstand – it is simply a marvellous white elephant (or should I say walrus?).

The special exhibition “Siberia: at the edge of the world” continues from now until 1st March 2015 at Manchester Museum.  Entrance is free.

Sophie Rowe, Conservator, The Polar Museum

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This entry was posted on November 24, 2014 by in Behind the Scenes, News and tagged , , , .
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