The Canadian Museum of History has acquired an extraordinary collection of Inuit drawings from the mid-1960s that uniquely documents an era of profound transition for the people of the Eastern Arctic.
The collection, comprising 1,842 drawings by 159 individuals living in communities in the North Baffin region , was acquired from Terrence Ryan, who worked for 30 years as the resident arts advisor in the famous Cape Dorset print studio. He solicited the drawings from ordinary people during an epic four-month journey by dog sled in 1964 to the northern tip of Baffin Island. Richly diverse in theme and style, the drawings provide a unique window into traditional Inuit culture, revealing rare first-person accounts of the wrenching shift to a new way of life, as people were moved off the land and into permanent settlements.
“The Terrence Peter Ryan Baffin Island Drawing Collection is a national treasure that we will be proud to safeguard and share for the benefit of all Canadians, especially the peoples of the Far North,” said Mark O’Neill, President and CEO of the Canadian Museum of History. “The Collection will also be invaluable to the Museum’s ongoing study of Inuit and Arctic history, and Inuit ethnology. We look forward to developing dynamic partnerships across the country to share these outstanding works.”
During his travels in the North Baffin region, Mr. Ryan distributed paper and pencils to Inuit living in or near four communities. He invited people, with minimal direction — young and old, men and women — to record their history, culture or traditions for posterity. For many who contributed, it was the first and only time they put pencil to paper. The drawings preserve voices that would otherwise have been lost.
“Although these drawings were done over just a few months, they represent many generations of Inuit life. As I traveled across Baffin Island, many of the people I encountered — and to whom I gave drawing materials — had been living traditional lives with little influence from outsiders,” said Terrence Ryan. “These drawings reflect not only this traditional lifestyle, but also the beginnings of profound change. I am proud that this collection will now become part of the Canadian Museum of History, where more people will be able to enjoy it and learn from it.”
Some of the drawings include the artist’s written notes and observations, further enhancing their value as historical resources. The collection also includes Mr. Ryan’s travel diary, documentary photographs of his journey and associated files, which will be of great value to contemporary researchers. The Museum’s acquisition of the collection, valued at approximately $1 million, was a combination of a purchase and a gift tax receipt. The collection has been designated as one of “outstanding significance and national importance” by the Canadian Cultural Property Export Review Board.
Located on the shores of the Ottawa River in Gatineau, Quebec, the Canadian Museum of History is Canada’s largest and most popular cultural institution, attracting over 1.2 million visitors each year. The Museum’s principal role is to enhance Canadians’ knowledge, understanding and appreciation of the events, experiences, people and objects that have shaped Canada’s history and identity, as well as to enhance Canadians’ awareness of world history and culture.