Museum of Nature: The ice is broken on unique new Arctic gallery

A young visitor checks out the new Arctic gallery at the Museum of Nature.

An “artistic ice jam” may sound like a pas de deux in figure skating, but in fact it’s the unexpectedly unique introduction to the new Arctic gallery at the Canadian Museum of Nature.

The phrase was used by museum CEO Meg Beckel to describe the installation titled Beyond Ice, which is made of several large slabs of real ice that serve as screens for a panoply of film and animation footage, provided by the National Film Board.

Elegant is usually not the first word that comes to mind when describing a pile of slabs, but these slabs literally are an artistically arranged representation of the ice jams that are a feature of life in the Arctic. As scenes of the people and creatures that live at the top of Canada flit across the frozen screens, visitors can walk between the slabs, and even touch them. All that ice chills the air — the room may be a popular place during heat waves — and the light is dimmed, which creates a reasonable facsimile of “the long northern night,” as a news release says.

“We really wanted that entry experience to stop you in your tracks and immerse you in the sense and the feel of the Arctic,” Beckel said in an interview. “It’s just a really cool way to digitally express the Arctic.”

The installation was created by the Crystal Group, which is based in France and is “one of the world’s leading designers of ice-focussed exhibits.” Who knew there was such an industry?

The slabs are the starting point of 8,000 square feet of artifacts, information and specimens both preserved and living. Small Pacific cod, a staple of the Arctic food chain, swim about an aquarium, while another tank holds colourful sea anemones and at least one rather assertive lyre crab.

Overhead hang life-sized models of narwhal and beluga whales. There’s a brilliant photo of a Greenland shark, which can live for 400 years and is “possibly the longest-living animal on Earth.” There are birds of many kinds, and huge Arctic hares and the relatively tiny Arctic foxes that hunt them. There’s a stuffed polar bear, which is big. Really big. Smaller are the lemmings on display, which are also long deceased and immobile, though throughout the museum a sense of their prodigious swarms was provided by 30-plus busloads of visiting school children.

Another look inside the Arctic gallery, this time from a polar bear’s perspective.

There are surprising facts: how many people know that more than 500 species of insects and arachnids live in the Arctic Circle? And that none of them are ants?

Southern Canadians may also be surprised by a display of Rankin Inlet’s Victoria Kakuktinniq, who designs haute couture from seal skin. “Seal is the new black,” a T-shirt proclaims. Other textile displays show the height of traditional wear, in a gorgeous caribou skin parka, and the depth of ridiculous fashion, in a pinching, 19th-century corset made of whale baleen.

Insights into daily life abound. A selection of mundane grocery items demonstrates how expensive food is in the far north, and it echoes Annie Pootoogook’s great painting Cape Dorset Freezer. (The painting is in the National Gallery’s new Canadian and Indigenous galleries, which, like the Arctic gallery and the Museum of History’s new History Hall, is a Canada 150 project.)

First-person testimony about human life in the Arctic is delivered via “people capsule” video stations, which feature both Indigenous people and researchers from the south, and which will change periodically to expand the stories and, like much other information in the exhibit, to keep apace with the dramatic and inexorable effects of climate change in the Arctic.

Regular changes will also be scene in the Northern Voices Gallery, which is curated by northerners and currently looks at the culture of the Inuinnait — the “Copper Inuit” — of Cambridge Bay in Nunavut.

Other changes are more immediate, and novel. Wrapped around much of the exhibition space is a “deconstructed mural,” made by Inuk artist Nancy Saunders of Kuujjuaq, Quebec. Entitled Illurqusivut (Our ways), the images of Inuit culture are positioned in such a way that they appear to be separate murals from most vantage points, but appear as one connected mural from one particular vantage point.

The mural is a suitable metaphor for the new Arctic gallery and for the Arctic itself; it is a huge yet delicate arrangement of discrete components that, to be truly understood, must first be seen as a single, harmonious system.

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.