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Donation reveals Danish influence in Greenland

Carved Kalaallit items from the British Museum collection Carved Kalaallit items from the British Museum collection
25 Nov
A donation to the British Museum has revealed Danish influence on Greenland’s indigenous Kalaallit people 

David Haig-Thomas was returning from rowing in the Los Angeles Olympics in 1932 when he met an old friend, Wilfred Thesiger. Thesiger, an avid desert explorer, recruited Haig-Thomas for a trip to Africa where the Olympian fell ill.

Determined to escape Africa’s heat, Haig-Thomas headed to the far north with Ernest Shackleton’s Ellesmere Land Expedition. On this expedition he spent time in west Greenland with the indigenous Kalaallit people learning their language and hunting for a fabled large dinosaur skeleton in the region.

After service in World War II, Haig-Thomas donated a few artifacts to the British Museum, including 900-year-old bone snow glasses. Now his descendants have donated 70 more artifacts to the museum.

‘It was fantastic to see these objects that could speak to both parts of the collection. It fills a hole in our Arctic collection,’ said Jago Cooper, curator for the Americas at the museum. ‘We are starting to get a sequence of life in the region represented through time,’ he added.

‘I live in a small Inuit community. Many of these objects, such as the harpoon and fishing spear are still used today,’ said Shari Gearheard, a research scientist based in the Arctic region. ‘These are historical objects that provide the design idea. The engineering hasn’t changed, but the materials have.’

The new objects not only include harpoons and toys, but also souvenirs produced for Danish travellers in the region. Items that a Danish missionary or trader could have bought when dealing with the Kalaallit range from a walrus tusk cribbage board to an ivory letter opener. Such objects have previously been excluded from museum collections for lacking scientific value, but are now seen as a useful record of Kalaallit life.

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