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Inside The Vault At The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre

Inside The Vault At The Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre

A behind-the-scenes look at the museum's operations and collections before its 40th birthday celebration this weekend.
By Jacob Boon
Jun 14

Ahead of public birthday celebrations this weekend, Up Here and other local media were invited this week on a behind-the-scenes tour of the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. 

Registrar Susan Irving toured us around the Yellowknife facility, showing off an extensive collection of photographs, newspapers, artifacts, and artwork donated from people and communities across the North during the museum’s 40 years of operation.

“Their history is our history,” says territorial archivist Erin Suliak. “We are here not only to preserve it but to share it.”

Archivists are working to digitize and preserve thousands of pages of the Native Press; a newspaper for the Indigenous people of the Northwest Territories that began publication in 1971.

The Native Communications Society donated the treasure trove of files last year.

Included are 200,000 images that need to be identified, catalogued, scanned, and archived.

There are dozens of other defunct newspapers collected at the Prince of Wales, some from communities that themselves no longer exist (like the Pine Pointer).

Suliak is the first territorial archivist for the museum who was born and raised right here in the NWT. The Prince of Wales currently employs five archivists, a technical coordinator, and a library technician. Four of those seven staffers are Northerners.

It’s something to be proud of in a region that for much of its history was documented and catalogued by outsiders. Now, it’s not only mostly locals doing the archival work, but increasingly it’s also Northern residents who voluntarily come forward to share their collections and tell their tales.

“More and more we’re getting Northerners sharing their stories,” says Suliak.

Archivist Erin Suliak shows off the centre’s rare book collection. Like many rooms containing old and valuable materials, temperature and humidity here are carefully controlled.

Pest control here is low-tech, but vitally important. “We have to be super vigilant all the time.”

A 1987 photo of Lucy Bluecoat checking her char at the Tchi tiet, on the Mackenzie river across from Tsiigehtchic.

Suliak holds up a picture of “proto-Instagrammer” Pi Kennedy’s spring hunting cabin on Jackfish Lake.

One of the museum's most cherished collections belonged to photographer James Jerome, who collected thousands of images around Gwich’in fishing camps in the ’70s. Jerome tragically passed away in 1979 in a house fire, but close to 9,000 negatives were able to be saved from the blaze and were donated to the heritage centre.

Another group of photographs, which Suliak is particularly a fan of, belong to the legendary NWT trapper Pi Kennedy—a “proto-Instagrammer” whose documentation of his life on the land helps tell an important Northern story, says Suliak. The museum even teamed up with Cabin Radio last year on a podcast about Kennedy and his famous bush radio. You can listen to it here.

Conservator Rosalie Scott points to a break in a beluga whale’s vertebrate, possibly caused by a harpoon. “There’s a story there that we just need to look at and reveal.”

A 2,500-year-old boot found in the mud near the mouth of the Mackenzie River. It quite possibly belonged to a child. “You could totally see a kid losing one boot,” says Scott.

Some of the materials Scott, the museum’s only conservator, uses to clean and preserve. Some are treated on site, closer to the environment of the ground they emerged from. Others are brought south to be stabilized.

Packing and handling delicate historic artifacts for shipment requires some styrofoam craftsmanship.

The Prince of Wales also stores kilometres worth of audio recordings from across the North—one of the reasons they're running so low on space. Suliak says the centre is prioritizing the digitization of Indigenous language recordings first. The museum also collects government game returns. The bureaucratic ledgers record who’s bringing in which furs each season, but also reveal the rise and fall of animal populations across the decades.

“Our aim is to try to capture as much of the story of the North as we can,” says Suliak.

Within reason, of course.

“We can’t be a Yellowknife community attic,” says culture and heritage director Sarah Carr-Locke.

A lot of government property with nowhere else to go ends up at the Prince of Wales.

The museum represents all three territories, so space is at a premium.

This 53-million-year-old tree trunk was pulled from the first pipe at the EKATI Diamond Mine.

The museum holds the NWT’s original legislative mace, which was assembled from narwhal tusk, whale bone and shipwreck-salvaged copper. It only lasted three years before the brittle materials began showing signs of disrepair.

A replica was used from 1959 until 1999, when Nunavut was born, and the territory commissioned a new, more robust ceremonial staff.

The public is invited to see more from the museum at its 40th birthday celebration this Saturday, June 15. Festivities kick off at noon with stew and bannock, live music and an NWT arts market. Birthday cupcakes, Voyageur canoe rides, storytelling, and dance are also on the jam-packed agenda, which can be found here.