Igloo Exhibit

Part of Exhibition: Frozen In: Captain Comer and the Hudson Bay Inuit

Topic: History Subtopic: General

Case Study

of an Exhibit

by Jeff Crewe

Published on September 21, 2009

  • Description and goals

    Exhibit Context
    This simulated igloo was one of several elements in the exhibit entitled Frozen In: Captain Comer and the Hudson Bay Inuit. From 1885 to 1903, George Comer was both an arctic whaler and a part-time collector of Inuit artifacts. He was employed by various museums including the American Museum of Natural History and Peabody at Yale. Captain Comer intentionally locked his ship, The Era, in the ice for 9 months from September to May to gain an early start on whale hunting. During the winter months, nomadic Inuit families would build igloos on the ice near Comer’s ship to discuss hunting techniques and trade furs for steel knives, harpoons, sewing needles and other helpful tools of the Industrial Revolution. Comer respected the Inuit and was impressed by the wisdom and technology they use to survive in the arctic climate. Over seventeen years he built a relationship with the Inuit by learning their language and customs, by honest trade and cultural exchange.

    Our formative (pre-design) evaluation told us that this exhibit must describe the Inuit people and their ways as much as it describes Captain George Comer and his arctic experience. The exhibit became divided into three areas: 1) an introductory area describing the geography and time-line; 2) a room simulating the portion of Comer’s ship where he traded with the Inuit; and 3) an area devoted to the Inuit way of life as it was when Comer traveled. The simulated igloo was the most prominent piece of this area. Adjacent to the igloo is a display case of Inuit artifacts including a snow knife and a shovel. These are the only tools needed for an Inuit man to build an igloo. Two experienced Inuit could build an igloo in about 2 1/2 hours. Efficiency and accuracy of construction was essential for their survival.

    Why We Included an Igloo
    Early in the design process for this exhibit, we knew that an igloo replica should be included. More than any artifact, this complex yet minimal structure represents the Inuit ingenuity and adaptation to their hostile sub—zero world. The igloo is a quintessential example of human adaptation to the environment. The purpose of our simulated igloo was to recreate the enclosure where Inuit families would make tools, sew hides into parkas, eat, sleep and play games. We wanted to foster empathy for the people that lived in these harsh conditions. We wanted to illustrate some of the ingenious design features that Inuit people built into their structures.

    Our full scale scenic igloo has about 1/3 of it cut-away to expose some wall sections and to make it safe and accessible for our visitors. A raised snow platform covered with caribou hides invites the visitor inside to better understand this environment (see photo with call-outs),Adjacent to the scenic igloo is a scale model of an igluviak. This is a winter-long snow shelter made up of several igloos clustered together with interconnecting tunnels. Visitors can lift the top of this model to reveal the view inside showing how an inuit family might efficiently live and work inside this space.

    Problems with design & fabrication

    • We were not able to replicate the luminous quality of a real translucent wall of snow.
      The scenic igloo is opaque, made from plywood framing, luan skin, and a textured Styrofoam block surface inside and out.
    • We used real caribou hides: Some visitors objected. Others appreciated. They shed a lot and it became a maintenance issue.
    • Couldn’t honestly answer where or how the inuit went to the bathroom in the igloo.

    A research side trip
    My igloo research was limited to literature and web searches until I had the opportunity to build my own igloo while visiting the lake effect snow belt along Lake Ontario in New York State. In early March the texture and consistency of the wind drifted snow allowed me to slice the the 2’ deep drifts into slab blocks approximately 30” x 24” x 6” thick using an manual wood saw. Each block weighed about 40 pounds. I made a 10’ diameter circle on the ground and started forming my igloo. With the help of my 11-year-old son we formed the structure. Two days later (far from the Inuit standard 2 1/2 hours) it was ready for occupancy. My son, nephew, dog and I slept overnight in the igloo. The experience for me was quite valuable. I learned how difficult it is to stay dry and warm working with this material. I wore out 4 pairs of gloves from handling the coarse snow slabs. Also, precise cuts, well chinked joints can save scarce and time and energy from making repairs and lost heat. We all learned the importance of temperature regulation. Although it was 20F outside, the temperature inside the igloo gradually increased from the heat of four bodies to above 32F. Rising heat caused melting overhead and dripping froze the surface our sleeping bags (we had no caribou pelts). On the positive side, all of us that crawled into the igloo enjoyed the brightness of this space during the day. Sunlight filtered through a dome of white translucent blocks of snow creates an incredible ambient illumination.
    With warmer temperatures, the igloo collapsed within days as it should. An Igloo is the greenest of green architecture.

  • Exhibit Opened: May 2007

  • Location: Mystic, None, United States

  • Estimated Cost: $10,000 to $50,000 (US)

  • Website(s):  http://mysticseaport.org

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