Penn Museum will soon lend its largest object from Alaska to the United Nations for its upcoming exhibition The Right to Water and Indigenous Peoples. The Museum's 15 foot Umiak, an Inupiaq skin boat made of stretched walrus and seal skin coated with seal oil, will navigate its way to New York City in mid May where it will be on display at the UN until the end of June. The exhibition, which marks the Tenth Session of the UN Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, highlights water’s critical relevance to indigenous spiritual, cultural, political and economic systems around the globe, and includes contributions from indigenous photographers and filmmakers around the world.
The Provenience of the Umiak
With the help of John Wanamaker, the department store magnate, the Penn Museum hired William B. Van Valin to lead an expedition to Alaska, 1917-1919. Van Valin had previously lived and taught in northern Alaska while working for the U.S. Bureau of Education. For the Museum he collected ethnographic material among the Iñupiaq and excavated ancient remains at Point Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost location of mainland North America. He also took photographs and motion picture film. The Van Valin films, now at the Smithsonian Institution’s Human Studies Film Archives, are the first ever made of Iñupiaq Eskimo life.
Listen to an excerpt about the umiak from the Penn Museum's Highlights of the Galleries Tour: