It smells like the past. I sit alone on a seal-skin covered bench before glass-fronted cabinets brimming with objects. Gruesome carved soapstone beasts, knives, tools, baskets, combs, jewellery, boots, and so many variations of seal, fur, and beaded clothing.
Dim, directed lamps cast yellow puddles of light onto the displays, though some small objects escape into the shadowy corners.
It’s quiet. In the distance I hear other visitors talking amongst themselves, but I can’t make out what they’re saying.
Overhead, floorboards creak and I look up to the low ceiling, following the sound of hidden footsteps to an unseen room.
I never tire of visiting the Greenland National Museum and Archives. It is an archive of treasures, mapping the path of migrating peoples and the pasts they left behind in Greenland – the Saqqaq, the Independence people, the Dorset, the Norse, the Inuit.
Here, there is an example room from the past, laid out for my imagination, reindeer skin on the bed, a candle ready to light on a small wooden table, bowls of mattak (whale skin and fat) ready to eat, as if the occupant had just stepped out into the cold for a moment.
In the next gallery, a dozen skin and fur outfits crowd a cabinet, standing empty of the people who once wore them, only darkness within the fur-lined hoods where faces once peered out.
In the North Greenland gallery, is the umiaq, a wooden-framed skin boat designed to carry communities to new hunting grounds. It’s the oldest known example, reconstructed to its original form.
More than five hundred years ago, small dark hands held these wooden boards, heaved together, carrying the boat ashore.
When they laid it to rest on the sand, standing over it, talking through panting breaths, did they imagine their umiaq would not move from that place for five hundred years, that it would sail into the future without them? Why did they leave it there? What happened to those small dark hands, those breathless voices?
But it’s the photograph on the wall that really captivates me. The image shows the umiaq as it was found, its base sunken into the earth, its frame collapsed around it, as if the boat itself had taken a deep breath and exhaled, shedding its weight and its memories into the soft sand.
The lure of the past becomes stronger the more one descends into the museum. And as a veteran visitor, I know what the past holds. As I pass the glass cabinets with their myriad objects, I know I am approaching a special place, a dark, silent corner – a grave. Cave-like, dimly lit, it mirrors the place where the remains within were found.
The Qilakitsoq mummies could be sleeping, but for their deathly stillness, their blackened skin and withered hands reaching out from under the skins and furs that wrap their curled bodies. The child though, seems unaccepting of his death. His skin shines like porcelain, soft dark hair protrudes from under his sealskin hood, his lips still pink, slightly parted, long black eyelashes around his empty eyes.
As I leave the Museum and step out into the light, I can still feel the heavy shadow of the past. The colonial harbor, where the Museum lies, is a cluster of colorful wood and stone historic buildings, a quiet part of town. It could be fifty years ago.
Walking back toward town, I pause by the water. A flag on a tall white pole snaps in the breeze above me, the museum’s yellow eye-like symbol on the flag’s blue background watching over the bay below.
Two young girls scout the rocky shore, selecting stones and casting them into the grey water, its gentle waves pulsing against the stony shore, sending pebbles clattering against each other.
I turn away from the water, toward the city. And then, above me, I see seven-storey grey towers lined up like grey sentinels – a wall between past and present – and beyond them, the grim, dilapidated blocks, brimming not with objects, but with people, with lives. And time moves on.