Drawing lessons – using a new language to describe Greenland’s past | Polarjournal
Manu Larsen Mølgaard shows the landscape outside of Sisimiut he drew during the workshop (Photo: Arctic Hub)

Drawing workshops in Greenland are allowing people to tell their own story to historians. The result is a richer picture of their past

The assignment given the students at the Sisimiut GUX, a gymnasium, was to draw a place in the area that they like. The instructions had come from Nuka K Godtfredsen, an artist, and Frederik Fuuja Larsen, of Nunatta Katersugaasivia, Greenland’s national museum, and Anne Mette Randrup Jørgensen, of Nationalmuseet, the Danish ditto. The assignment was part of a workshop being put on by Activating Arctic Heritage, a research project involving the two museums, showing how drawings can be used to communicate research results.

Arctic Hub was on hand to see how the project tries new, creative methods that can involve ordinary people in research.

Activating Arctic Heritage examines the intangible cultural heritage found at Aasivissuit-Nipisat and Kujataa, two of Greenland’s World Heritage sites, by collecting stories from the people — past and present — who have lived in the areas during the past 4,500 years.

“We’re very interested in stories about the landscape,” Ms Jørgensen, an Arctic anthropologist, said. “That’s why we collect stories and look at the stories that have already been collected.”

During the workshop, Nuka K Godtfredsen taught the participants drawing techniques (Photo: Arctic Hub)

Until now, Activating Arctic Heritage has focused on conducting interviews with residents and looking at written accounts. Using drawings to gain insight into people’s experiences with the area is a new approach.

“We turn to drawings now to experiment with using a different language than the written word,” Ms Jørgensen said. “Drawings are amazing storytellers. For our workshop in Sisimiut, for example, someone drew the famous Nasaasaaq mountain illuminated by the Northern Lights. It was an incredibly beautiful drawing of something she liked, and it set us thinking about what kind of places in the landscape we actually use.”

Mr Godtfredsen also believes that drawings are a good way to get people to think about how they actually use the area, and that asking people draw could be a way to expand the number of people who contribute their accounts.

“Through drawings, people can tell stories about their unique lives and experiences. Be it about their home or about a recent boat trip. It lets everyone tell stories from and about their everyday life.”

The drawings the students in Sisimiut drew will not be included in the research being done by Activating Arctic Heritage. Instead, the workshop is first and foremost a part of the project’s efforts to involve the community, according to Mr Larsen, who is the head curator of Nunatta Katersugaasivia.

“It’s important that researchers do not come here to collect data and leave again straight away. That’s not how it should be. We must involve the people who live here and remember to include and listen to their stories, because they know the history of their area best.”

Leana Berthelsen chose to draw Sisimiut’s colonial-era buildings (Photo: Arctic Hub)

One of the issues Activating Arctic Heritage is looking into is how the people who have lived in the Aasivissuit-Nipisat area down through the ages have adapted to changes in the climate. Both Ms Jørgensen and Mr Larsen emphasise that history does not only belong to the past.

“When you work with history, it’s also always about the future,” Ms Jørgensen said. “In our research, we use the past as a starting point to say something about the future. When we talk about climate change, it is important to understand that the climate has always been changing. That’s why we’re looking at how people have adapted to such changes in the past. Maybe we can apply their knowledge to our future.”

Recognising that cultural heritage points both backwards and forwards in time, Activating Arctic Heritage makes a special effort to involve young people. Because, as Mr Larsen says: “The young people’s attitudes to the future are highly relevant. After all, it belongs to them.”

Activating Arctic Heritage also arranged drawing workshops for pupils at the local primary school in Sisimiut and for residents of Kangerlussuaq, a nearby hamlet, as well as a presentation at Sisimiut Katersugaasiviat, the town museum.

Nicoline Larsen, Arctic Hub

Arctic Hub is responsible for disseminating research about Greenland to audiences outside of academia. Articles are published here as part of a partnership with PolarJournal.

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