This Inukshuk figure stands outside the Scott Polar Research Institute in Cambridge. It was made by the Inuit artist Aqjangajuk (Axangayu) Shaa in 1966 and was purchased by the collector Charles Gimpel, who displayed it in his Suffolk garden until 1979 when it was given to the Museum. An Inukshuk is a figure made of piled stones that is constructed as a means of communication. They were traditionally made by the Inuit and other peoples of the Arctic region of North America and may historically have been used as a point of reference for navigation acting as markers for travel routes, fishing places, camps, hunting grounds or places of veneration.
The Inukshuk is made from separate blocks of granite, probably originating from Kinngait (Cape Dorset), Qikiqtaaluk (Baffin Island) in Nunavut where it was made. The artist would originally have assembled the figure without any mortar fixing, rather like a dry-stone wall. However, when it was installed with the collector, and subsequently outside the Scott Polar Research Institute, bronze dowels and mortars were used to more safely secure the stones. In 2009 the Inuksuk was moved and reinstalled once more with further application of a cement-based mortar to join the stone sections together. Unfortunately, following a visitor incident in 2018, the torso of the sculpture toppled to the ground leaving only the large granite legs still standing upright. It was at this point that we were contacted by the Scott Polar Research Institute to undertake its reassembly and safe reinstallation.
Following our examination of the figure with the museum team it was clear that there had been at least three different applications of various mortars fixing the Inukshuk in place during successive installations. We agreed that these had now become visually intrusive and aimed to try and minimise these joins as part of the reinstallation so that the figure could appear in a form that was closer to the artist’s intent.
As a starting point for the treatment we needed to remove all residues of cement and mortar after which the stones were thoroughly cleaned to remove soils and algae. This revealed the beautiful variegated colours of the pink and black granite. We then carried out a test reassembly of the Inukshuk without the use of mortar and only small wedging stones to assist in holding elements in place where required. The stones were positioned to resemble the original images as far as possible using photographs taken when the artist originally installed the sculpture in Canada as our primary source. The image showed that the Inukshuk initially seemed to have more of a striding posture when first installed. Comparing images of the arms also suggested that they were more thrown forward than the most recent installations and that the figure’s right arm was turned the other way up.
The idea of this project was to add greater structural strength through the replacement of the old bronze dowels with stronger stainless-steel dowel supports. These were inserted into original dowel holes where possible, but the existing holes were not of sufficient depth and so were drilled deeper to ensure that they would hold the dowel securely. They were then secured with suitable resin adhesives. Additional dowels were also inserted through the base of the huge granite legs to ensure that the Inukshuk could be safely fixed into its existing concrete base when it was reinstalled. This strong internal support enabled us to use a more sympathetic lime mortar containing aggregates to match and blend with the stone.
For reinstallation the top section of the torso was assembled and fixed before the sculpture was moved to site to ensure that the smaller stones could be aligned in more controlled conditions. The legs and lower two torso stones were then taken separately to the site so that they could be individually levelled as each stone was dowelled and mortared. The dowels were set in position using resin which was also used to fix the dowels at the base of the legs. Finally, the lime-based mortar was used to repoint the joints between the stones. The Inuksuk is now safe for public display and continues to be a much-loved feature outside the Museum.
With grateful thanks to:
Sophie Rowe and Alex Partridge from the Scott Polar Research Institute, for their help in organising this project.
Andrew Coxall, stone conservator, for all his assistance with the practical treatment.
Dee Williams and his team from MTec for all their assistance in deinstallation, test assembly and reinstallation.
Scott Polar Research Institute