Machine Memoir: the back story of a snowmobile

In this blog post, guest contributor Jonathan King reflects on his long association with a snowmobile, his career in the curation of Arctic collections, and how we learn about object histories.

Ever fashionable in museums is the biography of objects. The stories of the origins, culture, use, and collection may be collected, without existential queries. With a bit of luck personal details of the indigenous or other owner of the specimen may be recorded. Then the great prestige of the collector and subsequent owner(s) may be presented. Finally, the use of the ‘masterpiece’ by the museum or other institution may be laboriously recorded and accorded the full scholarly apparatus of foot notes, appendices and a mighty bibliography. Lo, the bust of Nefertiti, the Mona Lisa! This technique was most successfully employed by Neil MacGregor in his History of the World in a Hundred Objects, an H.G. Wellsian format whose timeless deployment garnered huge prestige for the British Museum, and even the occasional machine.

So, this is, in contrast, an account of a marginal object, sikitu for Inuit, lacking in prestige and beauty, manufactured and then taking on the authentic trapings of indigeneity – obtained in the far north of Canada for display purposes having been abandoned by its owner after it had been wrecked. It is a Skidoo, or in Alaskan parlance a snowmachine or snowgo, one used for personal travel introduced in 1959 as seemingly an unreliable plaything and manufactured in Québec. It is blessed with a simple 2-stroke petrol engine under a plastic bonnet driving a tank-like track over wheels. The engine is in front, with a shaped plastic windscreen behind and a bench like seat for two people to straddle, with foot rests of course.  The snowmachine came of age during the 1960s when Canada and the US were consolidating their interests in the far north, both for reasons, to use weasel words, of ‘social development’, and of defence. Then it was used alongside the even more tank-like Bombardier. For this was the time of the building of the DEW Line stations, the Distant Early Warning System designed to warn the world of the Soviet attack that never came – but these days still might. They were used, eventually by everyone, missionaries and the military (alongside the Bombardier), teachers, and store-keepers – as well of course by hunters, trapping furbearing animals on the mainland and hunting sea mammals and fishing on the sea ice. As such the Skidoo became the ubiquitous replacement for dog teams from the late 1960s. It was a symbol of modernization, of the neo-colonial development of the Canadian north, while the story reflects the moment just before self-government, or at least public government, came to various indigenous peoples. And of the eventual loss of, among the general population, the skills of dog sledding.

On a personal note, I have driven snowmobiles in the north, been photographed on them, and have not found them easy to ride. For me to drive a snowmobile is rather like driving a mowing machine, both having broad traction rollers making maneuverability difficult. A snowmobile is somewhat less biddable than, say, a camel. The first time I went on one, or rather more accurately was pulled by one was in the spring of 1986. I was going walrus hunting, and sat on the komatic or sled pulled behind with rifles, food, primus stove and other gear. It broke down, because the bearings had gone, and been replaced by sleaves of small sections of copper by the owner and my host EI. The hunt was successful, a walrus was killed, butchered and on the return journey I sat way up on the sled on large 10 or 20 kg packages of sweet-smelling walrus meat wrapped neatly and laced into sections of walrus skin.

So how did I come to be on a skidoo, and how did I come to acquire a skidoo for the British Museum? I will explain. I was organizing an exhibition at the Museum of Mankind about the north, and went to the island and village of Igloolik, 200 miles north of the Arctic Circle to make a collection for the show, Living Arctic, which opened in 1987. I worked at the Museum of Mankind, the Ethnographic Department of the British Museum, at 6 Burlington Gardens behind, and now part of, the Royal Academy. This grand building, adorned with statues of the great European writers and thinkers, was designed in the third quarter of the nineteenth century by James Pennethorne (1801-1871), as the Senate House of the University of London, and later used by the Civil Service Commission. The Museum was said to have been a project of Jenny Lee, Labour Minister of Arts, around the gradual re-organisation of the British Museum building as the British Library became detached. Adrian Digby and Bill Fagg, the founding keepers, installed in the grand state rooms – entirely unsuited to immersive anthropological displays – a flexible system of cases and ceilings that could be re-arranged for each exhibition. There is no official history of the Museum of Mankind, but Ben Burt has written a very funny upstairs downstairs account of the place, ‘Man and Boy at the Museum of Mankind’. Too often alas, the humour is at my expense. One of the opening exhibitions in 1970 was of art from the North American Arctic curated by William Fagg and Elizabeth Carmichael. It was accompanied by a well-illustrated booklet, publishing for the first time many significant objects, some of them collected on occasions of first contact between indigenous North Americans and European explorers. 15 years later, I curated a similar exhibition, with more objects, and less fanfare. Another exhibition was contemporary Inuit art, toured by the Government of Canada.

In the same year there was an American Festival in London, organized by Jennifer Williams and Susan Larkin. They hoped to bring over artists to exhibit and demonstrate their work. For some reason South Bank could not accommodate the American Festival, so it came at the last minute to the Museum of Mankind. With very little notice I had to organize 8 or 10 artists to come over with their tools and materials. At the centre of the show was the Tlingit carver Nathan Jackson, from Ketchikan, who duly carved a totem pole which now stands outside the Horniman Museum on the South Circular Road. Paul and Clara Tiulana also came from Alaska and made an umiak (open whaling boat) model. Other artists came from New York, Florida and New Mexico. The Duke of Edinburgh visited, as always joking. He asked Barbara Jean Teller Ornelas, renowned Navajo weaver who was with her family, ‘How long have you been on the game?’. The American Festival also organized a competition for the best totem pole design, ‘A Totem Pole for Today’, though I’m not sure you could do that now. Children could take away ‘totem chips’; that is, discarded chips of red cedar. I learned how much preferable it was to organize exhibitions with indigenous artists.

These 1985 exhibitions came to the attention of Hugh Brody, anthropologist and film maker, who had worked in the north and published an account of the community then called Pond Inlet. He had been contacted by Georges Erasmus, the Dene leader who was later to chair the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Affairs (1991-1996) in Canada which was to lead to far reaching changes in the north. Erasmus, and a Mohawk Dave Monture, headed an Ottawa-based organization, Indigenous Survival International (ISI), recently founded to campaign for a better understanding of native rights outside Canada. The need for ISI arose because of the campaign by animal rights groups, such as Lynx, against the use of seal skin – and particularly against the clubbing (actually by non-indigenous Canadians) of baby seals. The campaign was made famous or perhaps infamous by Brigitte Bardot. The problem with the highly successful campaign was that all seal skins became unsaleable. So, Inuit hunters who relied on selling skins, prepared by their wives, for $30, suddenly found themselves without a cash income – the cash needed of course for the fuel for the skidoo, store foods and clothes, tobacco and all the other amenities of modern life to be had from the Hudson’s Bay Store, or Co-op.

So, Brody, Monture and I met up, took the idea to Malcolm McLeod, the Keeper of the Museum of Mankind, who was told that ISI could find the money for the exhibition. In 1986 I made several visits to Canada. During the first followed Monture and Cindy Gilday, also Dene, to meetings with civil servants, to conferences and trade shows in an endeavour to raise the money. Eventually the Ontario Hunters and Trappers Association started the ball rolling with $100,000. A non-indigenous organization recognized that better understanding of the north might help against the anti-fur people. Lynx let me know that they were aware of my perfidy. But, in another reality, much of the fur was actually produced in farms, so that any cruelty to animals was of a similar order to say growing cattle, chicken or pigs. Brody suggested I visit Igloolik, as a community in the then Northwest Territories, still run by hunters in a traditional, if modified manner. This I did and realized immediately on this first visit that there was unlimited potential to develop an exhibition around the life of the Iglulingmiut. Further the oldest Inuit clothing and other articles, after collection at first contact by William Edward Parry, had been deposited in the British Museum. It was on this first visit  that I took my first rides on, or rather behind snowmobiles. I returned in the summer, and set about collecting the material for the exhibition, which would range through the downstairs galleries at the Museum of Mankind. There I met and was put in the care of John MacDonald who ran the research station. This was a large streamlined building dominating the skyline of Igloolik, a community of then about 1000 people on an island a few miles long sitting between the mainland and Baffin Island. The research station is perched on top of the hill, shaped like a streamlined flying saucer sitting on a high stalk which contained the staircase. I was billeted in a very comfortable older wooden building nearby, built decades earlier as a cook house for earlier government activities. And, guided by an interpreter Helen Oolalak, went on the short band radio to ask people for their assistance in the collection of clothing and other subsistence articles for an exhibition reconstructing some part of the life ways of the people of Igloolik. Round and round the village we went and commissioned new clothing: inner and outer parkas and trousers, and especially boots. Upper clothing was and is made of caribou skin, while the boots are made of ringed seal, with bearded seal soles: boots, kamiks, are the truly difficult thing to get right, the skin requiring endless drying and scraping, softening with iron tool and teeth, and then requiring ingenious stitching. The sewing must all be on the inside to ensure that moisture and the cold does not travel through the caribou sinew, taken from along the backbone where it is strongest and longest and can be split into thread. Oolalak asked one time ‘Why d’you want so many pairs of kamiks?’

The next visit was made at the end of 1986, to Dene territory, around the community of Rae Edzo. Erasmus and Gilday insisted that the Dene should have similar space, so I went out on the trap line of Joe Migwi, and collected clothing a flat toboggan. Migwi collected creatures caught in his traps, and then his boys put the frozen beasts at the bottom of their sleeping bags to thaw out, so that, in the morning they could be skinned and dried on stretchers. I took a photograph of Migwi making a beaver skin stretcher for the museum, sitting in the middle of it so that he seems to be surrounded by an all-body halo. This was used in a poster for the exhibition. Joe Migwi didn’t come to London, and instead I used the photographs of a Yale anthropologist Shep Krech to ensure a degree of authenticity. I should perhaps have said earlier that in the spring I had also very briefly visited the northern Quebec community of Chisasibi with Dave Monture; and we brought over to two Cree who set up a tent in the exhibition with a floor covering of spruce as a camp for springtime for fishing and duck hunting.

On my last visit before the show, I organized for the Housing Corporation of the Northwest Territory to send us plans for a modern house as would be built in Igloolik, with all the necessary features and materials that couldn’t be found in London. I met with Zac Kunnuk of the Inuit Broadcasting Corporation, and invited him to London to make a film. Later he was to make the Caméra d’Or winning film, Atarnarjuat: The Fast Runner.  And I collected all sorts of materials that could be used to make the modern house authentic: and, indeed there was an Apple Mac with an Inuit syllabic script. Some of the materials came from the Igloolik dump, an oil lamp made out of an oblique cross section of an oil drum. I picked up an all-terrain vehicle, in those days a three-wheeler, donated by the Igloolik Research Centre, and also a snowmobile, to go outside the house. The snowmobile had been through the ice, had a broken windshield, mended, as it was, with plastic sheeting sewn as though it was a piece of clothing. John MacDonald organized the removing of the engine and the sewing of a new seat cover so that, from my point of view, the children who would be visiting the exhibit could experience the luxury of seal skin.  MacDonald thought of it more appropriately as celebrating Inuit ingenuity.

But first before reaching the modern house with the Inuk at his computer there was a reconstruction of a snow house, igluviga, made alas of polystyrene. The designers wouldn’t listen to me and made it circular rather than parabolic in shape, but I was able to insist that it be filthy inside, black with the soot from the seal oil lamp rather than the imaginary white. Three Inuit came over, Victor Aqatsiaq, Rebecca Paapaq, and George Qulaut, then assistant to John MacDonald in Igloolik. They helped with the preparation of both the Inuit house and particularly with the dressing of the buildings.

The exhibition was successful. The Times published photographs of the preparation of the snow house and Cree tent. Hugh Brody’s book Living Arctic accompanied the exhibition, and was reprinted. A report was issued, and the few loans returned. Everything else was packed up in the storehouse. The Apple Mac was sold to one of the curators, and the snow mobile, not being a ‘collection’ item was taken to Blythe House. This is was the outer storage unit for the British and other National museums. Near Olympia, this former stationery store I believe, is a formidable building, featuring as MI5/6 headquarters in Smiley’s People. At the back is the notorious Hut J, where vulnerable things that can’t be thrown away, such as Victorian show cases, could be stored. Things that didn’t matter at all could be stored in a container, and into the container went the snowmobile, because I wouldn’t let it go the way of the other props. And there it stayed for thirty years, until Jago Cooper and Amber Lincoln, curators of the 2020 Arctic Culture and Climate exhibition, removed it from Blythe Road and once again put it on display – even though the model was way out of date.   You can see it on YouTube at 11.30.